Becoming an entrepreneur was never on Ayanna Howard’s to-do list.
“In fact, it wasn’t even a remote thought in my mind,” said Howard, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Today, however, Howard is the founder and chief technology officer of Zyrobotics LLC. Launched in September 2013, the company is commercializing assistive technology that enables children with limited mobility to operate tablet computers, smartphones, toys, gaming apps, and interactive robots.
With eight employees, Zyrobotics introduced three gaming apps earlier this year and expects to begin shipping its first smart toy in December. By 2016, Howard believes the company could be generating $4 million in annual revenue, with 30 employees.
What changed Howard’s mind about commercialization? “Two things,” she said. “I-Corps opened my eyes to the possibility – and VentureLab provided a safe haven to launch a startup.”
A unit within Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2), VentureLab helps Georgia Tech faculty, students, and staff transform innovations into sustainable companies. Among its many programs is I-Corps, which VentureLab administers for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to validate market opportunities for technologies developed by NSF-sponsored researchers.
Howard went through I-Corps in summer 2012, and then incorporated Zyrobotics with VentureLab’s assistance. “VentureLab is a solid bridge to transition technology from the lab into the market. You’re not swimming with the sharks,” Howard said, noting the incubator helped her:
• Find manufacturers and electronic vendors to produce Zyrobotics’ products.
• Navigate through the licensing process by sharing insights about how other licensing agreements have been structured.
• Obtain $50,000 in grants from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) to develop a revised prototype.
“The GRA funding was a big help,” Howard said. “Going through I-Corps gave us critical information about what we needed to change on our device, but we still had to implement those changes. It’s hard to get that kind of money because you’re not doing academic research, and you’re not really a business yet.”
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