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Innovation corps will help USF turn academics, students into inventors

At a press conference Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor highlights USF’s role as an economic engine. With her are USF postdoctoral researcher Dr. Ismet Handzic, center, and associate professor Dr. Daniel Yeh.
Published Aug. 20, 2015

TAMPA — Local leaders want to create an "innovation district" around the University of South Florida and its most promising academics and inventors.

For USF, a big step toward that goal is becoming an Innovation Corps Site.

That is the special status afforded to universities by the National Science Foundation. Under the program — also known as the "I-Corps" — USF will show teams of professors and students how to turn their inventions and ideas into new business ventures.

USF president Judy Genshaft, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and other officials came together Wednesday at a news conference to celebrate the program.

"What I-Corps does is it takes all of the progress that has already happened here at the University of South Florida," Castor said, "and it helps entrepreneurs turn the page."

Former county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, now the director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, said programs like the I-Corps can help the proposed innovation district take shape sooner than proponents imagined. "You're going to see new interest and such in this area that will come from a whole number of directions," he said. "It's going to happen a lot faster than people think, because it's already starting now."

USF is already home to startup incubators and high-tech academic programs. The I-Corps can help attract more of those kinds of endeavors to set up shop around the Tampa campus.

The university certainly has the potential to launch even more startups: The university recently ranked among the top 10 U.S. institutions and first in Florida in the number of patents granted in 2014. USF's 104 patents beat out the University of Florida's 87 patents.

"Having an I-Corps program is really about changing the culture," said Paul Sanberg, USF vice president for research, innovation and economic development.

Scientists and academics, by trade, are lacking in the business skills necessary to successfully commercialize their ideas, he added. But that's what I-Corps — and, maybe one day, the innovation district — aim to address.

Daniel Yeh and Ismet Handzic are two USF inventors who said they benefited from participating in the I-Corps program.

Yeh, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, invented technology that transforms waste into fertilizer, renewable energy and clean water. Handzic, a postdoctoral researcher in the USF College of Engineering, is working on a modified walking crutch.

Initiatives like I-Corps, Sanberg said, are "exactly" what the university needs to develop an innovation zone.

Contact Michael Majchrowicz at (813) 226-3374 or mmajchrowicz@tampabay.com. Follow @mjmajchrowicz.

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