Engineering School Awards First Innovation Grants to Professors with ‘Protostartups’

AUSTIN, Texas — The Innovation Center in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin has launched a grant program to provide critical funding for faculty entrepreneurs to help them bridge the gap between university research and developing their technologies so they can create companies and attract venture funding. The program’s first two grant recipients are professors Luis Sentis and Richard Crawford.

The Innovation Grants will go to professors with early-stage startups, referred to by many in the entrepreneurial community as “protostartups.” Although these first two grant recipients are in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the grants are open to all faculty members across the UT Austin campus.

Professor Bob Metcalfe, faculty director of the Innovation Center and professor of innovation at the Cockrell School, announced that Sentis will receive $40,000 to assess and advance the commercial viability of his lab’s robotics technology, and Crawford will receive $20,000 to assess and advance the commercial viability of his lab’s computer-aided design (CAD) software.

“The Innovation Center encourages and supports faculty and students in using startups to change the world with their research,” said Metcalfe. “The center provides entrepreneurial tools, expert advice, entrepreneurship courses, mentorship and other commercialization resources.”

Additional Innovation Grants will be awarded on a continual basis in the coming years, and the center accepts applications from UT Austin faculty members throughout the calendar year. Grants will range from $10,000 to $100,000. The center also offers corporate partners, alumni and friends of the university the opportunity to financially support faculty commercialization efforts.

“Texas Engineering is home to some of the most creative, ambitious and industrious engineering researchers in the world,” said Sharon L. Wood, dean of the Cockrell School. “The Innovation Grants will help us leverage these qualities and empower our faculty to maximize the impact of their inventions.”

Sentis is calling his robotics protostartup Apptronik. His team will provide hardware, software and design services centered around actuators, motors that are responsible for moving and controlling robots. One of his first anticipated products enables a humanoid robot’s arms, legs and joints to have more realistic and varied motion. The funding will support Sentis’ prototype development costs and business and market readiness efforts.

Crawford’s protostartup, which he calls nVariate, solves a major challenge in CAD software models. The problem with existing programs is that they create small gaps and openings in the design that break a model into disconnected lines, slowing the prototyping process. Crawford’s team has developed software that enables users to create and edit continuous, seamless models, which is not possible with existing technologies. He plans to use the funding to advance his lab’s invention from proof-of-concept and prototype to a more developed software beta package.

With the launch of Innovation Grants, Louise Epstein, a successful entrepreneur and the Innovation Center’s managing director, is focused on raising more funds for future grants and facilitating more faculty innovation.

“One of our key objectives in the Innovation Center is to identify and support the faculty who are eager to commercialize their research,” Epstein said. “We envision that promising research will progress into a startup, move off campus to recruit staff and leadership, raise additional capital, scale up and impact society.”