Want Wider Recognition for Your Idea? Ignition Awards Offer More Than Funding

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Rana K. Gupta formerly served as director of faculty entrepreneurship at Boston University. He helped BU researchers bring technology and other research breakthroughs to the marketplace to increase their impact through programs and workshops, one-on-one consulting with faculty, educational resources, and community building among BU innovators.

Let’s start by making one thing clear: a Boston University Ignition Award is not your average grant. In fact, we don’t even think of them as grants. Why not?  Well, traditional grants provide funding; not funding in addition to training workshops, network-building, and practitioner feedback. Other grants are given to recipients to help finance promising ideas, but with little or no interaction with experts in the very fields where those ideas could take hold! And more conventional grants may help pay for your research, but they don’t get you any closer to understanding how your idea can make an impact in the world; how it might be commercialized.

Ignition Awards are different. Since the program began in 2006, based out of BU’s Technology Development office (OTD), the goal has been to identify and support the development of market-worthy ideas from our faculty and researchers, whether that’s via licensing or a startup. Funding is one support mechanism that Ignition Award recipients appreciate, certainly (up to $75,000 per year); but it’s the focus on helping their ideas find a potential pathway to commercialization that adds unique value. It’s best to think of the IAs as a process to advance your work, not an endpoint. Since starting in my role in 2018, I have expanded this program by offering more value to program participants throughout the entire submission and decision process. The objective is that those of you who participate, even if you don’t win, will come away from the experience with more information, more direction, and a better understanding of the potential for your idea to be commercialized than you would have otherwise.

Dr. Chandramouli (“Chand”) Chandrasekaran, Anatomy & Neurobiology (CAS), was one of nine winners of the 2021 program. His work on openEyeTrack — a flexible, high-speed research eye tracker — is targeted at research labs that need to monitor eye movements. He said of the process, “[Technology Development] helped me develop the initial pre proposal, and then had various outside advisors to help me with the process of creating compelling final proposals that could be provided to the reviewers as well as engaging Linda Plano to help us with our pitch deck. All in all it felt like a wonderful experience for translating research into technology.”

Dr. Chandrasekaran adds, “The feedback provided at every step was helpful, prompt and clear. Academics sometimes struggle to think of the big picture because we are so trained to think of the details. Abi Barrow for instance had fantastic feedback on how to write a summary, and also the bigger impact portion. Rana had advice on what I should focus on and just saying my solution was cheaper would not cut it. I also very much enjoyed the detailed instructions provided and the clear timelines for the program. It felt better run than many programs from various granting agencies and I think Rana’s attention to detail is very important.” The Ignition Award will help the Chand Lab bring openEyeTrack closer to a commercial product that can be made available to the many psychologists and neuroscientists around the world.

Since starting in my role in 2018, I’ve launched a portfolio of programs designed to help faculty and researchers think through the potential of their ideas. Options range from self-paced tutorials to multi-day training programs, and even suggestions on networking and industry-specific “ecosystems” that could be beneficial in terms of advancing your idea. My goal as Director, Faculty Entrepreneurship (or as I like to call it, Director, Faculty Impact) is to help any and all BU PIs achieve impact with your research and ideas. That means working with you to inform and guide the process as you determine the best pathway for your work, whatever that path or objective might be. I aim to work with PIs across all 17 BU colleges and disciplines, from the College of Arts & Sciences to the School of Law, to faculty and researchers in medicine, engineering, social work, theology, and other schools across the university. Ideas with impact — important work that should find its audience — are not exclusive to one discipline!

For those of you who choose the commercialization pathway, the IA process offers a suite of help and resources and will teach you the new skills to advance your idea towards the intended audience. Again, funding is one component, but the overall purpose is to advance PIs’ ideas intended for commercialization. And just so we’re clear, commercialization is defined as the process by which a new product or service is introduced into the general market, though it’s mistakenly often thought to mean “sales and marketing.” Not the case.

The Ignition Awards process commences each year on October 1, with the announcement of the pre-proposals due November 1. The process ends the following spring with presentations in April and announcements in May. To submit for 2022 and learn more about the process, visit the Ignition Awards page.

When asked if he would advise peers and colleagues to submit to the program, Dr. Chandrasekaran doesn’t hesitate: “Most definitely, if you have an idea that you feel is one day worth commercializing and you want some initial funds as well as to participate in a rigorous process that will one day help you secure outside funding.”

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