Jin Kim Montclare is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the NYU School of Engineering, performing groundbreaking research to engineer proteins to mimic nature and, in some cases, work better than nature. She works to customize artificial proteins with the aim of targeting human disorders, drug delivery and tissue regeneration, as well as create nanomaterials for electronics. Through her research efforts, she has helped launch two startups: inSchoolApps (LabLessons), and Brooklyn Bioscience.
Please give a brief introduction of yourself.
I’m an Associate Professor at the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the NYU School of Engineering. I’ve been here for 10 years. I engineer proteins that can do all sorts of funny things. I’ve done a little bit of entrepreneurship based on my research.
Can you talk about how your venture was born and your I-Corps experience?
Lewis Dots was born out of me wanting to give back to the community. I had been working with the Urban Assembly Institute for Young Women in Science for a couple years, and really wanted to get the girls engaged in the STEM pipeline. When iPad came out, I realized it could be an extremely useful tool for teaching STEM. I was determined to figure out how to bring iPads to the classroom and engage these girls in understanding chemistry. Molecules are complex, we’re talking about things that can’t be seen, so I wanted to find new ways to engage them in learning how to make or break bonds and construct molecules in ways that they never could before. With the help of my graduate student, Carlo Yuvienco, who’s now my post-doc, we developed the Lewis Dots app to do just this. We implemented it into the classroom and the girls loved it. We got a lot of press, NY1, among others, came and interviewed us. Then New York Technology Meetup contacted us to showcase our technology. We showed a bunch of people interested in technology that they could do chemistry with their fingers. We got a lot of buzz and feedback from that, and that was the moment we got really excited thinking this could become commercially viable.
Based on that app and the attention it was getting, we were encouraged to apply to the NSF I-Corps program. We got accepted and started our startup journey. We learned about customer discovery, which included trying to identify customer pain points, and seeing whether our original thought, an app for education, can be used for a startup. Through I-Corps and the Lean Launchpad process it taught us, we realized that our original idea might not have the market potential as we originally thought, so we made some pivots and from that we came out with a new venture called inSchoolApps with LabLessons as a platform. In this case, it was a platform that provided pre-lab and lab lessons for students and teachers. We realized, from customer discovery, that it’s important to do labs. You can’t get away from doing everything virtual. So our technology became a way to make labs more effective for teaching STEM lessons. That project is still on-going.
In terms of how I view science and everything I do now, my lens has changed. I have this understanding now that customer discovery is important- you have to get out and engage with the market. Even with my own research, we look at what we are producing and think about who are customers are, in a way we never previously considered. We always thought our research was something that could change the world, but we weren’t thinking through how it would actually get to the market. Now with this customer-centric lens, we have started to work on developing the commercialization plan, and are in the midst of launching a startup to bring our research on protein engineering to market. We also received another NSF prototyping grant for that work called PFI-Air Technology Transfer. I think I’ve been forever changed on how I view my own research in the lab.
How do you feel about juggling being a faculty member and starting your own business?
I actually think it behooves us as faculty members to help our students. The way I view the I-Corps program, the NSF grants, and doing the startup, is that my students have an interest in it. They clearly want to do this, and if they have an interest and a passion for it, I have to be the facilitator as a faculty member. I see it as part of my role. I’m an academic, and here to help my students. If a student wants to do a startup, then I’ll find a way to make it happen as best as I can.
Is there anything other faculty members should know about getting into the entrepreneurial world?
There’s a lot to know. It helps to go through a program like I-Corps, as it was certainly an eye-opener for me. It also helps to have a student(s) excited about innovation. I was just helping my student, and the student clearly wanted this project to happen. You need someone motivated to be an entrepreneur. You can’t do it half-cocked. A key ingredient is to really want to do it, getting out of the building and going through a process of understanding the business model canvas, and who your customers are. Interviewing potential customers was really eye-opening for me, to understand the landscape. A lot of people think entrepreneurship is not compatible with science and engineering, and I firmly disagree. It is completely compatible with science and engineering. It’s the same process of hypothesis driven questioning, but now you’re applying that to people or customers. The whole process of customer discovery is no different than science or engineering. The only thing to consider is deciding to make that leap, and asking the questions.
Before starting any of this, did you have any inclinations towards startups or business?
When you’re a professor and starting up your own lab, you are being entrepreneurial. You’re trying to get resources for your ideas, to build an effective team and to prototype in your lab. Also, your customers are your granting or funding agencies. That experience of starting your own lab, recruiting students to work in it, and coming up with ideas for some type of product is entrepreneurial in itself.
How do you think your research aligns with your ventures?
Right now, the company we are working on is specific. We did customer discovery actually. We called companies and, based on the principles of Lean Launchpad, had to figure out if there is a market for what we are developing. We got positive feedback from companies, saying if you did these experiments then it might be interesting for us to partner up. That gave us a sense of, “Yes”, that there is a customer pool for, so we might as well start going in that direction.
How are you working with the NYU School of Engineering to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Since last summer I’ve been working to get our entrepreneurial faculty together to coordinate our entrepreneurial efforts within the Engineering School. I think we are doing a lot of great things, but not enough is coordinated through our faculty by our institution. I’ve been meeting with this faculty group and we’ve been assessing our curriculum, our entrepreneurial efforts and benchmarked it against other institutions and we are doing pretty well in comparison to other engineering schools. Now we have ideas to move forward, in really integrating entrepreneurship and innovation in our curriculum. We are making small steps but implementing them quickly. I think we have enough faculty excited, and it’s clear to us that the students want this.
What is your favorite part of the general NYU entrepreneurship community?
Everybody is excited to help each other and push things forward. That excitement is really tangible in competitions for example. Also because we are located in New York City, I think we are poised to generate new types of ventures with support. More and more people are getting on board and making this a really robust community. I’d like to see more startups, not only run by students and faculty, but within in the community where we can participate in them. We are in a great position right now, and only see that the sky’s the limit.
What is some advice for your fellow faculty members on how they can be more entrepreneurial?
Apply for I-Corps, participate in Lean Launchpad bootcamps or workshops, or consider SBIR Grants. To get started on this, communicate with the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute. The problem that many faculty face is that it’s hard to get federal funding for research activities. So if they are considering that as a potential problem, one opportunity I see is research commercialization. If they consider it in that light, it only helps them, because everyone has been applying for funding and the pool of money is very slim. There are these opportunities that allow you to do entrepreneurial activities and it provides the faculty with another way to support their students and their labs. I see it as a win-win, and strongly advise faculty to consider that in light of the economic conditions for funding that all of us face as faculty.
I found that working with the Office of Industrial Liaison, especially when patenting, is a really great and excellent resource. My students that participated in Lean Launchpad have also served as teachers and made connections with the NYCEDC and E-Lab. Dee Dao is a mentor in the E-Lab, so it’s been really nice. Paul Horn has been putting out TAC Proposals, which are for faculty interested in prototyping some of their ideas prior to doing a startup. They provide $50K to do things like that. All the people at the Entrepreneurial Institute have been tremendously helpful to me.
When you’re not busy, what do you do in your spare time?
I spend as much time with my daughter and my family as I can. Whatever time I have, I try to spend with my family. I think it’s especially important to be there for my daughter because she’s so young, and just being able to watch her grow up is wonderful.
Originally published on NYU Entrepreneur.