Story written by Amy Parker
A research team from North Carolina State University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering recently completed the National Science Foundation’s intensive I-Corps Teams Program to assess the commercial viability of a next generation stealth material technology.
NSF’s I-Corps Teams challenges university research teams to evaluate the commercial potential of early-stage technologies through rigorous customer discovery interviews with actual customers and end users in the marketplace, and provides $50,000 in grant funding for participants. Participating teams will make a “go” or “no-go” decision to pursue commercialization by the end of the program with a goal of being better informed on necessary next steps to ensure success in entering the marketplace.
Led by Dr. Cheryl Xu, the SensNet team completed 103 total interviews over eight weeks with potential customers and partners of their radar absorbing coating for stealth applications. Current stealth coatings cannot survive extreme temperatures and are not totally effective, so this technology has the potential to revolutionize stealth aircraft due to its high absorption effectiveness and broad temperature survivability. The team’s interviews spanned from federal agencies and contractors to leading advanced material and aerospace coating companies in the defense innovation ecosystem.
Dr. Xu received funding from NC State’s Chancellor’s Innovation Fund in 2021 to optimize the manufacturing process and the team completed NC State’s 4-week I-Corps short course in early 2023 to establish eligibility for the $50,000 Teams Program. In addition to completing the required 100 total customer interviews and reaching a “go” decision, Office of Research Commercialization program manager Zach Williams, a startup founder himself, served as the team’s Industry Mentor for the Teams Program and was charged with guiding the team through the industry ecosystem and providing business expertise to help guide interviews and next steps.
SensNet was also selected as the recipient of the “People’s Choice” Award, an award issued at the end of the program that identifies the team with the best final presentation as voted by other teams participating in the cohort. “The team is extremely proud of our learnings and growth throughout the I-Corps process, and we are honored to have received the ‘People’s Choice Award’ for our efforts,” says undergraduate engineering student Jason Solomon, who served as one of the team’s Entrepreneurial Leads and led the interviewing process. “We are very excited to continue our customer discovery journey following the amazing experience in the I-Corps cohort, and we feel much more confident about our startup journey moving forward.”
SensNet will now look to pursue federal non-dilutive grant funding to further develop the technology to meet industry requirements, and will continue to build on knowledge gained during the program to conduct more customer interviews and further validate their business model. The team is also actively searching for new Department of Defense partners to help continue their research, and is interested in making new connections with those who want to learn more about the stealth materials they are developing.
This story was originally published in NC State Office of Research Commercialization