After a Washington University in St. Louis faculty member has discovered something unique and of potential commercial interest, they must first file an invention disclosure with the Office of Technology Management (OTM). Subsequently, the technology must be significantly “de-risked” before it can be placed on the path to commercialization.

“Can the technology be scaled up? Can an independent third-party evaluate and confirm claims about its success?” asked Vijay Ramani, the Roma B. & Raymond H. Wittcoff Distinguished University Professor in the McKelvey School of Engineering, and Faculty Fellow for Entrepreneurship for the Danforth Campus. These are the kinds of questions that must be asked and answered, usually multiple times, before a product can be taken to the market or attract investors.

The de-risking and scaling phase of innovation is frequently termed as the “Valley of Death,” because the majority of discoveries don’t make it all the way through. To help faculty innovators cross this threshold, the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship hosts LEAP (Leadership and Entrepreneurial Acceleration Program), an accelerator program that provides non-dilutive funding to the tune of $50,000 to finance initial de-risking of innovations emerging from the university.

The most recent LEAP cycle was record-breaking, awarding a half-million dollars in funding to 10 teams.

“We have a strong community of innovators and entrepreneurs at WashU,” said II Luscri, managing director of the Skandalaris Center and assistant vice provost for innovation and entrepreneurship. “Programs like LEAP allow that community to take action on their ideas and move WashU invented technologies towards commercialization.”

Ramani himself is a two-time LEAP award winner. He hasn’t yet started a company to manufacture and commercialize his products (a novel electrolyte membrane separator with applications in the energy and water sectors, and a new type of battery for grid-scale electric energy storage), but he does have multiple disclosures and provisional patents through WashU OTM.

Once the de-risking phases for these innovations are complete, and presumably, successful, he will be in a better position to move towards commercialization. He acknowledges that the LEAP funding is just the first step in this process and more such investments could well be required. “Once these studies are complete, colleagues at OTM can begin to market the innovations and pursue licensing opportunities,” he said. “They can say: ‘Here’s a technology that works, and here’s the evidence it works.’ ”

The technology has to do more than work, however. It has to be marketable. And the faculty member needs to show that.

“Faculty members are not always trained to think like the best entrepreneurs,” Ramani said with a laugh. “We are not usually well-tuned to the ways of the corporate sector.” A faculty member’s initial pitch might have, for example, 20 slides with equations that, while accurate, are all but incomprehensible to most people, along with complex diagrams detailing the intricacies of their invention. The LEAP program provides mentorship and feedback from experts in the faculty member’s field as well as those with venture capital experience.

“They’ll say, ‘OK, cut the first 19 slides, add a nice picture of what it is and then tell us: ‘What’s the market demand? Who are your competitors?’ ” Ramani said. “They guide applicants to make appealing presentations.”

The import of LEAP is felt far beyond the winners of each competition. All participants benefit from mentorship, feedback and exposure to industry leaders across fields.

The university and the broader St. Louis area benefits from the university’s dedication to innovation and entrepreneurship as well.

“WashU has excellent research going on,” Ramani said. “Some of it is truly, inherently fundamental in nature, which is great. But a lot of it also is somewhat translational.” The university can significantly benefit the broader community by enabling an ecosystem that favors innovation at every level.

Last year at WashU, a record 210 invention disclosures were recorded; 312 patents were filed;  and 34 U.S. patents were issued. But beyond the disclosure and the patents, OTM saw 10 new startup companies form stemming from faculty inventions. That’s 10 new businesses contributing to the local economy.

LEAP makes it easier for those startups to get off the ground.

“The more work you can do to de-risk your product, the better the chances of success you’ll have,” Ramani said. “As a startup, your viability is crudely defined as ‘Can you make it to market before you run out of money?’ The fewer problems you need to fix after you actually take the plunge, the better.”

Register for the LEAP Challenge.