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MIT researchers encourage their colleagues to step out of the lab and into the marketplace

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: February 28th, 2018

Two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are telling their colleagues that the key to perfecting their technologies lies outside of the lab, in the form of feedback they can get from potential customers and users.

Shreya Dave and Jeffrey Grossman were developing a new approach to desalinating water by using sheets of specifically prepared graphene oxide. Their technology had the potential to significantly increase the efficiency and lower the costs of this expensive process, which is key to providing clean drinking water to the more arid parts of the world.

Dave and Grossman applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation I-Corps program which required them to conduct hundreds of interviews with various people working in the desalination industry. As a result, the two researchers got a reality check. The estimated costs for their technology actually exceeded those of existing technologies by 50%, while the estimated improvement in efficiency peaked at just 15%.

Armed with that data, Dave and Grossman looked at other research papers outlining similar technologies, many of which citied the promise and scalability of the given innovation without including detailed analysis of actual costs.

To share their learning experience with fellow researchers, Dave and Grossman have published an account of their struggle in the academic journal Joule. Though they use their desalinization project as a case study, the two scientists stress that their paper is less about their research and more about the lessons learned from getting out of the lab and facing the realities of the market.

“You learn a lot from that experience that’s not out there in the literature,” says Grossman. “It was essential in allowing us to go from computer to spinout in five years.”

Grossman and Dave eventually refocused their technology to solve challenges in chemical separation processes such as distillation and evaporation. They launched the start-up Via Separations to commercialize their innovations and have received funding from The Engine, a start-up accelerator at MIT. Grossman serves as chief scientific officer while Dave serves as CEO.

Source: MIT News

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