SuperTalk Mississippi

USM scores science grant–first of its kind for Mississippi

photo courtesy USM

At The University of Southern Mississippi, research and innovation are fueling new discoveries in technology that offer real-world applications in the private and commercial sectors.

A recent National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps grant was fostered within the University’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. The $50,000 grant – the first of its kind awarded to a Mississippi university – helped yield a cellulose reinforced thermoplastic polymer composite created in the lab of USM Polymer Professor Dr. Joshua Otaigbe.

Otaigbe and his doctoral student, Shahab Rahimi, were co-developers of the technology that was put through a rigorous I-Corps vetting process used to determine if technologies have a commercial application. The USM project has resulted in a U.S. Patent application, along with publication in a number of high impact science and engineering journals.

Otaigbe notes that the project’s success packs a punch that can be felt far beyond the campus of USM and the borders of Mississippi.

“This type of award includes national visibility and recognition for our University’s research enterprise and capabilities, and the potential for accelerating research projects into the marketplace,” said Otaigbe. “And that can lead to patent licensing fees and royalties of successful projects, as well as economic development for Mississippi.”

The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory, and accelerates the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded, basic-research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization.

Through I-Corps, NSF grantees learn to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and gain skills in entrepreneurship through training in customer discovery and guidance from established entrepreneurs.

Rahimi, who completed his doctoral requirements with a glistening 4.0 GPA, served as the entrepreneurial lead on the seven-week project. His tireless efforts included conducting more than 100 customer interviews with professionals in the polymer composite industry to gauge the composite’s marketplace potential.

“The whole I-Corps project was a great opportunity for me to get a lot of valuable insights into all the elements involved in the commercialization of our technology, from identification of the main value proposition of our product, to potential partners, suppliers, key resources, channels and various segment, and to the real demands in the market,” he said. “This feedback has given me important directions in my future research plans to further develop this technology into products that could find useful applications.”

Rahimi notes that the primary advantage of the new composite is its reduced weight compared to glass fiber counterparts. In essence, these composites could be used to make lighter-weight components that are capable of providing comparable mechanical strength and stiffness to glass fiber composites, while being recyclable and reprocessable.

“This brings a major advantage in applications where light weight is of importance, such as transportation and automotive industry to reduce fuel consumption,” said Rahimi. “Typical application would be in car roofs, door panels and interior parts, headliners, rear deck trays, top sleepers, sidewalls and fenders in trucks and trailers.”

USM’s highly acclaimed polymer program has been a catalyst in helping the University develop transfer technology opportunities. The Office of Technology Development helps faculty, staff, and students identify, evaluate and protect potential inventions and innovations. The office works with inventors and developers to define and market technology portfolios of inventions, to promote new business ventures and to build business alliances that will accelerate the transition of inventions to the marketplace.

Chase Kasper, Assistant Vice President for Research Technology Transfer and Corporate Relations, points out that grants like the NSF I-Corps award provide excellent learning experiences for young researchers to explore and expand their horizons.

“We are striving to place more USM ideas into the marketplace and are shifting the culture to encourage more start-ups,” said Kasper. “Participation by USM faculty and students in this program on a national level is a watermark that spotlights the high level of competitive research that is being conducted at this University.

A unique aspect of the I-Corps project involved mentorship from an industry partner – in this instance Carl Hagstrom, Chief Operating Officer at Hybrid Plastics®. One of the top 10 nanotechnology companies in the United States, Hybrid Plastics operates as both research and development catalyst and chemical additive manufacturer.

Hagstrom worked closely with Rahimi during the I-Corps program, offering his expertise in product development and marketing. Hagstrom, who relocated his company from Los Angeles to Hattiesburg, notes that the University’s reputation as a leader in polymer science, coupled with a commitment to transfer technology, made it easy for him to serve as a program mentor.

“Technological innovation begins with a culture that values discovery. Southern Miss has that culture,” said Hagstrom. “Encouraging technological development is more than just a numbers count of certain metrics. It is encouraging a mind-set; a determination to push the boundaries from academic curiosities to practical commercial applications.”

Hagstrom notes that while commercialization of the new technology remains unknown at this point, the impact on USM’s team of researchers is undeniable.

“The program can require an almost paradigm shift in how innovation is viewed. It is no longer simply viewing innovation as an exciting new material of academic interest, but rather a viewing that material through the prism of what commercial applications it might have,” he said.

Dr. Jeff Wiggins serves as Director of USM’s School of Polymers and High Performance Materials. One of the school’s overarching missions is to see that students in all degree programs receive valuable training for a career in academia, commerce and manufacture which process and use polymeric materials. Wiggins says new technologies like the one developed in Otaigbe’s lab serve to reinforce those ideals.

“The innovations for commercializing cellulose fiber-reinforced composites by Professor Otaigbe and his student, Shahab Rahimi, are an excellent example to demonstrate how researchers at USM contribute at the international level with agencies such as the NSF to address long-lasting impacts toward the advance of science and progress of society,” said Wiggins.

Otaigbe and Rahimi take understandable pride in meeting the challenge of creating new technology within a compacted I-Corps time-frame. But both agree that finding useful applications for the polymer composite will bring an even greater appreciation for the long hours of laboratory research.

As Kasper points out: “These types of interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches will be the key to redesigning our ecosystem and transforming not only USM’s research, but also transferring it out for the benefit of society.”

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