In the early weeks of 2018, Meriah Grove was an innovator in search of an idea. The undergraduate advertising major from Atlanta had already launched her own nonprofit while still in high school, and now she was looking for new ways to channel her entrepreneurial passion.
Meanwhile, across campus, David Balinsky was about to complete his doctorate in veterinary medicine, but in his head lived the spark of an idea to employ aerial drones in the service of animal health. He just needed some help to develop and transform his idea into reality.
Both students found the pathways they needed, thanks to UGA’s I-Corps program.
I-Corps is the National Science Foundation’s seed funding program for commercial innovation. Launched in 2011 and brought to UGA via an NSF grant in 2017, the program offers education and financial support to help innovators with STEM-related ideas determine if those ideas have real commercial potential. UGA’s five-year, $500,000 grant allows it to provide up to 30 teams each year with both an introduction to the startup world and funding for critical, early-stage customer-discovery work.
Now entering its second year of operation, UGA’s I-Corps program adds another mechanism to the university’s well-stocked toolbox to help fledgling inventors and entrepreneurs move their dreams to market. From entrepreneurial education efforts in multiple UGA colleges, to the Office of Research’s successful Innovation Gateway program (which administers I-Corps), to more longstanding organizations such as the Small Business Development Center, there is a university-wide commitment to fostering a vibrant culture of innovation at UGA.
“Our goal is simply to help UGA faculty and students move their ideas to market, in whatever form that may take,” says Derek Eberhart, director of Innovation Gateway. “It’s right there in our name—we are a gateway, and there are many different ways you can walk through that door.”
Balinsky’s route to I-Corps fit with the “inventor” narrative: In spring 2018 he took his drone idea to a College of Veterinary Medicine hackathon and was matched up with a team that included three undergraduate computer science majors. His team didn’t win, but Balinsky’s idea for “Shepherd Drones”—unmanned aerial vehicles that hover over a herd of cows and use infrared cameras to detect those with elevated skin temperatures, indicating possible disease—earned him a spot in last spring’s I-Corps cohort.
Surprisingly, Balinsky says, little research exists on whether bovine skin and core temperatures differ significantly in sick animals. In addition to customer discovery, Balinsky has been working with Assistant Professor Brent Credille in veterinary medicine to begin answering this question and thus help validate the Shepherd Drone proof of concept.
“Innovations in technology have tons of potential to improve both the welfare of animals and the profitability of farms,” Balinsky says. “I’ve been traveling around the country, sitting down with producers, researchers and veterinarians. We have identified a need in the market and a potential solution.”