Editor’s note: Ken Kingery is senior science communications specialist for the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University.
DURHAM — Translating great ideas from the laboratory to make impact in the real world has always been a complex proposition for research universities. It’s not just about the technology itself but requires understanding the differences between an innovative piece of technology and a well-designed technology product with high market value. It’s about understanding the problem that needs solving, the design that will have the most impact, the market landscape for the solution, the typical diffusion of innovations, ethical and legal considerations for founders, and the steps required to successfully launch a product or a business. To navigate all these moving pieces, it’s incredibly helpful for entrepreneurs to receive coaching and mentorship from other entrepreneurs, product managers, legal experts and investors who have lived experience launching products and start-ups.
Duke Engineering’s three new executives-in-residence have proven their savvy in the entrepreneurial space, and their combined experience will boost the abilities and visibility of several new efforts housed within the Christensen Family Center for Innovation (CFCI) and beyond.
Adria Dunbar: From Counseling Research to Managing Director of CFCI
Adria Dunbar spent the past nine years of her career as an assistant professor of counselor education in NC State University’s College of Education. While at NC State, she developed multiple mobile and web-based software applications, including an NSF-funded mobile app called STEM Squad—mentorship software that paired NC State engineering majors with high school and middle school students interested in STEM. Ultimately, Dr. Dunbar decided a career in research was not the best fit for her creative and innovative talents. Her doctoral training at one of the top programs for counseling and counseling research (UNC-Greensboro), provided a strong foundation as a counselor and qualitative researcher, allowing her to easily pivot from researcher to product manager. She was already connected to several local software developers through her own software development, so it was a smooth transition into a short-term contract position at a Durham-based innovation studio (Pathos Ethos) during the summer of 2022. It was there that she met Steve McClelland, director of CFCI, who wound up recruiting her to the center.
Known as the place for Duke Engineers to go for help translating their ideas and research into potential products, CFCI’s leadership has been working to tailor its offerings to provide the types of resources early-phase entrepreneurs need most. The result is a reorganized CFCI with three primary avenues of support: helping Duke Engineering intellectual property get from the lab to Duke’s Office of Translation and Commercialization; running product design sprints to help software programs and apps in their early stages make the leap to a commercial product; and partnering with community-based organizations to support budding entrepreneurs in the Durham community.
Dunbar’s experiences check all those boxes and more. She has plenty of experience running programs in higher education. She knows how to run design sprints and work as a product manager. And through federal funding for her own software startup, she’s implemented programs focused on tech equity and diversifying entrepreneurship.
“Right now, the process between having something cool in the lab and getting it to OTC is something of a black box for some faculty,” Dunbar said. “Our job is to get intellectual property unstuck so it can go on to have positive societal impact.”
Ibrahim Mohedas: Converging Perspectives to Launch Impactful Products
Working alongside Dunbar in these efforts is Ibrahim Mohedas, who comes to Duke Engineering from the NSF, where he was a program director in the Convergence Accelerator, a program within NSF’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. Mohedas describes his research that led him into that role as converging aspects of anthropology and design processes to understand how best to help innovative ideas make an impact.
As a doctoral student at the University of Michigan studying design process, Mohedas had a front-row seat to see how the many aspects of commercializing a product come together to affect its success. He worked to commercialize a device designed to improve the ability of health care providers to place contraceptive implants correctly under the skin of women. The project required him to consider the needs and perspectives of multiple stakeholders such as Ethiopia’s health regulatory system, NGOs, the caregivers and, of course, the women receiving the implants.
In moving to CFCI, Mohedas will take all these lessons learned and experience communicating with multiple stakeholders at the federal level and apply them to products poised to take flight from Duke Engineering. He also plans to work with researchers to identify best practices when engaging with community partners and potential end users, to better understand their needs and limitations before beginning to develop a new product.
“We’re essentially spinning up a mini-accelerator to help move laboratory results and prototypes down a direct pathway to impact,” said Mohedas. “We’ll work with students and faculty to explore key areas to get their innovation to the next step like conducting market research, working on storytelling, and finding partners and funding sources to work with.”
The first cohort that Mohedas is working with are all researchers in the Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering, or PreMiEr, which aims to develop diagnostic tools and engineering approaches that promote building designs for preventing the colonization of harmful bacteria, fungi or viruses while encouraging beneficial microorganisms. Mohedas is also currently actively recruiting projects for the second cohort of the accelerator and encourages any faculty, postdocs or PhD students with an interest to reach out.
Lee Tiedrich: A Global Platform to Amplify Multi-Disciplinary Impact
A third executive-in-residence joining Duke Engineering this year is no stranger to the school. After graduating with a Duke bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1988, Lee Tiedrich spent three decades practicing law, working with tech companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 500 on transactions and other matters that bridged technology, law and policy. She returned to her alma mater in 2022. In addition to her Duke Engineering Role, she also is a Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Law and Responsible Technology in the Duke Initiative for Science & Society. She is now adding to that role by joining Duke Engineering and Duke AI Health in the newly created role of Responsible Technology Scholar.
A noted expert in law, policy and multi-disciplinary approaches relating to artificial intelligence, data and emerging technologies, Tiedrich brings insight from the national and international stages. Tiedrich sees her new role as a multifaceted opportunity to help greatly expand Duke Engineering’s impact and global reach. Drawing from her deep well of experience, she can advise new entrepreneurs on how to engage multiple stakeholders in the complex arena of AI and health care, among other emerging technologies, where considerations for law, policy, ethics and industry must be taken into account. She serves in both the OECD AI Expert Group and the Global Partnership (GPAI) on AI Expert Group, and co-leads the GPAI AI and Climate Committee as well as the GPAI IP Committee.
Tiedrich plans to help seed and grow Duke Engineering’s engagement in effective collaborations with partners from industry, government and nonprofit organizations. She also says that she wants to broadcast Duke Engineering’s efforts and expertise in these complex arenas through the global network she’s developed over her career.
She’ll have plenty of opportunities. She recently was an invited speaker on Generative AI and IP at the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization and on AI and Climate at Canada’s national AI conference in Montreal. She’s also slated to provide remarks at the OECD Artificial Intelligence Governance Meeting in Paris, the annual GPAI Summit in India, and at a series of events in Taipei.
“I want to connect the dots between traditional engineering technical work with the law and policy where it’s needed most,” Tiedrich said. “The name of the game in terms of impact in this field is that you can’t do it alone, you need multistakeholder and cross-disciplinary engagement.
This article was originally published here.