Graduate Student Innovations are Turning Heads from Cincinnati’s Top Entrepreneurs
By Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School
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UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub is quietly pushing Cincinnati to become the next big start-up destination in America.
On the outskirts of campus sits an impressive building that houses UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub. The building is quietly churning out promising new innovations that can change the framework of our world and effectively deliver on President Pinto’s promise of Next Lives Here.
The 1819 Innovation Hub thrives on the kinds of achievements that push existing industries to refine their approaches or change them altogether. In order to help inspire these kinds of innovations, 1819 encourages all UC students with a progressive idea, regardless of background or field of study, to join them in their mission to put Cincinnati on the map as an enviable startup locale.
Grant Hoffman, the director of startups at 1819, posits, “the building was not meant to just house an innovation center for the university, but also be the front-door for large companies in Cincinnati and outside the region to connect with campus talent and all of their resources”. 1819 is where innovation meets industry.
1819’s startup accelerator, the Venture Lab, allows entrepreneurial leaders to dip into UC’s large and diversified talent pool – comprised of faculty and students like you– in search of the next big idea that will shake the foundations of industries as they exist today.
A Startup Space for the Next Big Innovations
Grant sits in his office tucked away in a corner of the Venture Lab, surrounded by unique art pieces that pop off the walls, inviting the viewer’s eyes to ponder them. Fiddling with his vintage watch – a piece that he recently concocted a new strap for on the sewing machine in 1819’s Makerspace facilities – Grant proudly reflects on the revolutionary ideas he has witnessed grow from infancy to full-blown, startup business endeavor over the past year.
Each new project he describes is just as intriguing as the last; a browser extension that enables people with dyslexia to change the font of any text to make it easier to read, a mobile app that monitors workout tempo and changes the music tempo to match, an emergency naloxone product that makes it easier for the everyday citizen to help respond to and combat the heroin crisis, among others.
The startups birthed from the 1819 Innovation Hub are wide-ranging, with the key to each being that they started as an extraordinary idea. The Venture Lab’s pre-accelerator program is the means by which these ideas become a reality. During this seven-week, intensive program, a cohort of startup projects is put through the gauntlet, where they are paired with Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs) from Cincinnati’s industrial corridor who challenge them to get at the heart of what their idea is: what does the product have to offer and how are they going to ‘sell’ a business or investor on it.
Each week, the members of the cohort are paired with a different EIR whose background could be in a completely different industry from the last. The project team works with the EIR to refine their idea and methods, molding it into a more fully realized business model. At the end of the seven weeks there is a graduation ceremony where each project of the cohort presents the state of their endeavor after completing the program. Grant makes it clear that “the goal is not for it to be a completely finished project. We want to get a feel for how their project has progressed over the course of the pre-accelerator and what they need to move forward.” The audience at the graduation is comprised of potential business partners and EIRs, making this an important opportunity for collaboration and potential partnership. One of recent success stories of the Venture Lab’s pre-accelerator program comes from the world of chemistry.
Incubating Joel’s Big Idea
Joel Andersen, a PhD organic chemistry graduate of this past summer and member of last academic year’s pre-accelerator cohort, reflects on his time in the program. He states that working with the EIRs expanded his knowledge past his understanding of chemistry and “taught me to speak the business and marketing language and what they value. Now I can consider their values while I continually refine what I’m working on.” Being able to communicate with industry leaders in this way is paramount to any startup receiving funding and advancing past the “good idea” phase.
Joel describes the intricate process of filtering an idea through the pre-accelerator saying, “they don’t really expect you to have the whole thing in place. Part of the pre-accelerator is to find out through talking with their EIRs how the project is going to actually make money.” Another important piece of the pre-accelerator is customer discovery. “Ideally, and this was hard for me to wrap my head around, you’re not even telling them what your product is. Doing so automatically frames their answer. What you want to ask them about is the problems your product can solve for them.” Luckily for Joel, his research was revolutionary to the traditional methods of chemistry; he had the solution that many were looking for.
Joel’s research focus is on furthering the burgeoning field of mechanochemistry, a promising alternative to traditional methods of chemistry in that it lacks a solvent. Conducting a chemical reaction by way of mechanochemistry looks different than a traditional “beakers and test-tubes” reaction because, rather than dissolving them in a solution, it physically grinds the solid reactants together to form a product. Joel’s ball-mill reactor, which resembles a mortar and pestle, was originally used by geologists to grind rock samples before it was repurposed for mechanochemical reactions.
Mechanochemistry reduces the waste associated with solvent-based chemistry, as Joel describes, “When you heat a solvent, it is essentially waste. All you really want to heat is the molecules that are reacting together. If you take out the solvent, you are reducing 95% of the mass you had to heat before and you have removed all of these molecular barriers that are sitting between reactants.” Joel concludes, “What we typically observe, if a reaction takes 100 degrees in solution, it might take us 60 degrees.” Lowering the temperature at which a reaction occurs unlocks many new possibilities in chemistry that were previously undoable because of the cost associated with heating a solvent. Mechanochemistry is cheaper to conduct, safer for chemists, and more green-minded than conventional chemistry.
Grant refers to Joel as a “perfect example” of a student they like to see at 1819; Joel was skeptical of the Venture Lab at first, unsure of how a startup accelerator could help a chemist, but he had a great idea backed by extensive research and a willingness to take risks. Joel was recently awarded a $110,000 grant from the 1819 Innovation Hub to further his research and take his invention to the industry.
“A lot of chemistry stays the same, but sometimes brand new things are possible. Sometimes you can achieve something that is not just faster, but perhaps is just not possible at all in the conventional way of doing things.” This idea is what drives the 1819 Innovation Hub; UC students are the lifeblood that brings innovation and challenges our existing framework to adapt, refine, and grow beyond the confines of the “conventional way of doing things.”