I-Corps alumni startup, Nanograss Photonics, received a $256,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in August 2020. The startup, which participated in the Winter 2019 national I-Corps Teams program, has developed a next-generation optical communication device, based on opto-plasmonic technology, for communications beyond 5G.
However, the broader impact of the NSF SBIR funded project is to streamline a low-cost, scalable, and high-performance manufacturing technology for use in the photonics integrated circuits market. This manufacturing technology addresses the demand for low-latency, high-bandwidth, long-range, and low-power receiver modules, which are used by data centers, cloud service providers, and autonomous drone operators.
While the idea behind Nanograss Photonics optical communication device was born in the mid-2000s, it wasn’t until 2014, when Pouya Dianat, Chief Technology Officer of Nanograss Photonics, focused on it as part of his Ph.D. at Drexel University, that the proof-of-concept and experimental results were achieved. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, Dianat returned to Drexel in 2017 to continue working toward commercialization of the technology with Nanograss Photonics CEO, Bahram Nabet.
“I have an engineering background. At the time, I didn’t have a strong understanding of the market for this device. I was talking to a lot of people about the technology, and they were like ‘Oh, that’s exciting, but what is it for, and who is the customer?’” said Dianat.
In 2018, Dianat and his Nanograss Photonics team members participated in a UNY I-Corps regional course to explore the commercial viability of their innovation through the process of customer discovery—conducting interviews with potential customers to determine product-market fit. Encouraged by the feedback received in the regional course, the team continued onward to participate in the national I-Corps Teams program in 2019, where they completed 104 customer discovery interviews.
“Our participation in I-Corps was eye-opening. We were very attached to our initial value proposition—a communications device with higher band-width—but during the process of customer discovery, we found that customers were experiencing pain points around the cost and time constraints of manufacturing optical communications devices, so we made a pivot,” said Dianat. “It was a real ‘ah-ha’ moment, because we looked at our technology and how simply it can be made, and then we utilized the partnerships we formed through I-Corps to figure out how we could address the manufacturing problem in a cost-efficient way without compromising on the functionality of the device.”
Between the skills and tools obtained through I-Corps and the support from NSF, as well as other investors and stakeholders, Nanograss Photonics is well on its way to reaching its long-term goals of commercialization and growth.
“The NSF SBIR award has allowed us to continue moving on our product development roadmap. Because of this funding, we have a product in mind and a technical plan for pursuing it. Currently, we are in the testing phase of our product, but more importantly, the program directors and everyone at NSF encourage us to prioritize our customers and their needs, so we are continuing to connect with customers to develop a concrete value proposition—that’s our main project,” said Dianat.
In order to focus on the goals of the NSF SBIR project, Dianat left his position as an Assistant Research Professor at Drexel University at the end of July 2020 and has been working full-time at Nanograss Photonics ever since. The startup plans to pursue an SBIR Phase II award to continue their commercialization journey. Dianat shared the following wisdom for other university researchers exploring commercialization:
“It’s the technology that needs the startup, not the other way around—meaning, our technology was patented in the late 2000s, but it didn’t go anywhere—it stayed with the university and the inventor, our CEO, Bahram Nabet—until our team came together to transform it into a business. Essentially, it takes a village to commercialize a technology.”