Friday, June 13, 2014

What do you need to turn a brilliant idea into a business? “A good morale boost,” says Abhishek Motayed, founder and president of Rockville, Md.-based N5 Sensors, Inc. Motayed had that boost this month when N5 Sensors received two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards totaling $250,000. The grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation will fund development of low-power, computer chip-size benzene, carbon monoxide and ammonia sensors.

A 2012 UMD Invention of Year Award winner, Motayed has kept close contact with the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC), a crucial participant in the creation of N5 Sensors. “My interactions with OTC were very positive and encouraging. They are very knowledgeable—they knew exactly how to advise me on funding, commercialization and patenting,” says Motayed.

Pasquale Ferrari, senior licensing manager at OTC, was impressed by Motayed’s humble attitude and desire to learn how to build a business from the tiny sensor chips he developed in his lab at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Research in Electronics & Applied Physics. Ferrari and Motayed met in 2011, just a few months into Ferrari’s arrival at OTC, and began a longstanding collaboration that would yield several valuable lessons.

“Commercialization doesn’t happen overnight,” says Ferrari. “We took a variety of steps—forward, backward and sideways—that made the best use of university and state resources but also paved the way for how to use them.”

In the beginning stages, Motayed sought advice from the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, which offers monthly entrepreneur office hours. There he met Ferrari, and they began their discussions on funding opportunities, licensing and connecting with the right people.

University-owned intellectual property must enter a patenting and licensing process that should be done carefully and patiently. Filing for a patent, securing rights from joint owner institutions and then licensing that patent back to Motayed’s company so that he could practice the patent rights were a few of many steps along the way. Ferrari and Motayed received grants, including TEDCO’s former TechStart grant, to perform market studies that determined the current need for micro sensors. It was also crucial to find a way of producing the sensors at a low cost. For a small percentage of the company, BioHealth Innovations allowed Motayed to use their services for production.

Now, N5 Sensors is on its way to marketing micro sensors so small they can fit into a chip, with applications that include personal monitoring of air quality via mobile devices for people with asthma.

Motayed hopes to able to bring a product into the market in two to three years, specifically targeting industrial monitoring of four gases—oxygen, carbon monoxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. These gases are commonly present in all sorts of industrial operations, and may be toxic, pose a threat to the safety of workers, and produce long-term hazards to their health.

There is currently a very big demand for these sensors. Motayed’s business will supply this demand at a much lower cost and with higher performance—an unprecedented feat in his field.

The SBIR Phase I awards build on two recent recognitions for N5 Sensors: a phase III grant from the Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII) for $100,000, and acceptance into the DC I-Corps program, which is run by UMD, George Washington University and Virginia Tech. These recognitions allow Motayed and his team to conduct testing of future products, while providing motivation to reach their goals. SBIR awards are highly competitive—the two N5 Sensors received total $250,000—and are meant to yield exceedingly effective models for products that could eventually garner Phase II support, which means more funding and for a significantly longer period.

“To get where he is now, Abhishek had to show leadership and commitment,” says Ferrari. Today, OTC continues its hard labor of support. OTC often receives calls from investors and venture capital firms inquiring about the status of their base start-up companies, and through such interactions they give businesses like N5 Sensors additional opportunities for growth. 

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About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 7,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs. The college’s 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery, with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $150 million.