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VCU’s new Venture Lab is helping faculty bring their innovations to market

The lab has assembled teams of VCU innovators and Richmond entrepreneurs to develop breakthroughs in forensic science, health care and more as potential startups.

A man in a white coat holds a knife under a light in a laboratory.
Christopher Ehrhardt, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science, is taking part in VCU's new Venture Lab to help commercialize his breakthrough in forensic science analysis. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

When forensic investigators collect evidence from a crime scene — say a knife, or a doorknob the suspect probably touched — they generally don’t know how much, if any, of the suspect’s DNA is present until the sample is processed in the lab.

“You have to process the whole sample and it could turn out that you have nothing in there,” said Christopher Ehrhardt, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “It’s a big problem, especially with touch samples, which is a huge proportion of evidence collected now. We’ve heard from some law enforcement agencies that anywhere between 30 percent and 70 percent of touch samples [that police] submit produce no DNA profiles.”

Ehrhardt has invented a new way to know whether a forensic sample contains biological evidence before it is processed. His process, which takes just a few minutes and does not damage the sample, involves technology called imaging flow cytometry that provides a picture of each individual cell in a sample across multiple fluorescent channels. Ehrhardt’s method then uses big data algorithms to let the analysts know what evidence is present, such as saliva, skin, vaginal cells or blood.

“Crime labs could do this [process], not consume any of the sample and get the information they need in a matter of minutes,” he said. “You could say, ‘Oh, this sample has saliva cells, this cotton swab doesn’t.’ Instead of processing 20 samples, you now only process three because you now know which samples are going to have the evidence.”

A person wearing blue gloves holds a kitchen knife and swabs it with a cotton swab.
Ehrhardt's innovation would allow forensic science labs to more efficiently process biological evidence collected at crime scenes. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

Ehrhardt’s forensic science analysis method is one of six Virginia Commonwealth University innovations being developed in VCU’s newly established Venture Lab that has assembled teams of faculty, students, potential end users, and Richmond-area entrepreneurs to potentially bring the invention to market.

“Being in the Venture Lab, I can see a path forward to actually seeing this technology being adopted in crimes labs,” Ehrhardt said. “I would love to pilot this and do prototype testing with a crime lab for a state or federal agency. And to be able to say, is this going to work? Is it feasible for a real forensic case work?”

The 12-week Venture Lab, which launched this fall, is a pre-accelerator program designed to develop and validate the commercial or startup viability of promising technologies invented at VCU.

By the end of the Venture Lab, each team will aim to have a validated business model and a path forward for next steps, which could include a startup company, an opportunity to license the technology externally, or to not move forward with commercialization.

“The big thing is: How do we go about validating [these innovations?]” said Dominic Costanzo, a new venture manager in VCU Ventures, which runs the lab. “What are the steps that you need to take as far as customer discovery is concerned? So figuring out: What is the value proposition that this technology holds? And then who are the customer segments and end users that you’d be selling to and that would be using it? And then how to go about soliciting feedback from them in a non-biased way to figure out: Is what you’re doing solving a real problem?”

Key to the process, Costanzo said, is forming teams with complementary expertise to validate the innovation’s commercial viability.

“We’re creating robust teams with a lot of skills and so everyone can then play to their strengths,” he said. “The entrepreneur can lean on the faculty for their scientific knowledge and really the brains behind the invention. Faculty can lean on entrepreneur for some of that business expertise. And then student interns fill the gaps with some of their expertise.”

The idea is that the program will ultimately answer the question of whether the faculty member’s innovation solves a problem in a way that end users would buy, said New Venture Manager Lacy Spott.

“We’d love to see 100 percent company formation,” Spott said. “But what we’re really looking for at the end of this program is either: One, kill it. This technology does not fill a need that exists in the marketplace. Don’t move forward, which is a win for us to know. No. 2: A company is formed with the team that we've put together. Or, No. 3: We find that there is viability here. We need to find somebody else or some other resources to put behind that.”

In addition to Ehrhardt, the other teams are working on innovations created in VCU’s College of Engineering, School of Medicine, School of Pharmacy and School of Nursing.

One team is working on an augmented and virtual reality based technology to help surgeons pre-plan complex surgeries. It grew out of innovations by Dayanjan (Shanaka) Wijesinghe, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and  Outcomes Science in the School of Pharmacy and director of the Laboratory of Pharmacometabolomics and Companion Diagnostics.

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An early version of Wijesinghe’s technology was based on Microsoft HoloLens, but has more recently demonstrated proof of concept using the Oculus Rift, Gear VR and Google ARCore.

“Currently we are using this technology for testing with cardiothoracic surgeries and are in the process of also testing it in neurosurgery,” Wijesinghe said. “Additionally, there is significant potential for using this technology in medical education and surgical training.”

Wijesinghe said he wanted to take part in the Venture Lab because he is a firm believer in the idea that scientific research needs to be out in the real world to have the greatest impact on human health.

“Our project will only go so far as a research project,” he said. “The fastest approach for public adoption of a technology is through commercialization. We are taking part in the Venture Lab program to validate our primary hypotheses that we drew up in our business model canvas for commercialization of this technology.”

The program is allowing his team to make pivots at an early point in development, allowing them to bring the technology to market more smoothly.

“In the end, this exercise will lead to a valid business plan that is grounded on market research,” he said. “Undertaking this exercise before we are too far along in the development process is key as it minimizes effort, time and money spent developing a product that while looking cool, may not have a good product market fit.”

Geoff Beecher, the entrepreneur working on the virtual and augmented reality technology team with Wijesinghe, said the Venture Lab has done a great job of guiding the teams toward the goal of validating the viability of technology concepts and business models for commercialization.

“The Venture Lab is structured to keep teams on track to discover and focus, each week, and report on events of the week. Extremely well-thought-out, Beecher said.

“For me, having about 20 years in startups, it’s always good to continue learning and to collaborate with experts. My time with Venture Lab thus far has been rewarding. It’s provided me additional structure in assessing the viability in technology concepts, [such as] the notions of ‘failing early,’ and ‘pivoting to success.’ If you were to express a core belief or watchword of Venture Lab, in my opinion, it would be ‘discovery.’”

Jon Brew, an experienced entrepreneur and startup mentor, is working with Ehrhardt’s team.

“Going from ‘zero to one’ as the title of a popular book describes it, is both exciting and challenging,” Brew said. “This forensic tech may be used in a number of different ways. It does not replace DNA analysis, but may well make that process more efficient, reducing backlog, one of the most significant pain points in forensics investigations. The various ways this technology can aid investigators and forensic scientists needs to be explored, and launching as a startup may be the best way to discover its true market utility.”

Brew said the team has spent a lot of time in the discovery phase, interviewing potential customer and user groups.

“I've reached out to contacts at the commonwealth's attorney's office, and detectives with the Richmond Police Department, and others in law enforcement,” he said. “I've been very impressed by how willing people are to give us time for interviews. This may be because they believe this tech will help them do their jobs better, and may ultimately benefit society by keeping us safer. Personally, I find it very satisfying when I can help nurture a new product or service that has the potential to make such an impact.”

The Venture Lab is something that has been needed at VCU, Wijesinghe said, as it will help more of the university’s great research come to market.

“With the creation of the Venture Lab program, we are now able to quickly assess the product-market fit for any research outcome that we think may have commercialization potential,” Wijesinghe said. “If the research through the Venture Lab program identifies that there is an actual product-market fit, then the same program will also get us moving in the right direction towards commercialization of these products.

“Essentially, the Venture Lab program is acting as a force multiplier allowing more results that are products of VCU research to be successfully commercialized in a very organized and streamlined manner,” he added.

For Ehrhardt, the Venture Lab is providing him with a way to see his innovation have an impact.

“I can keep doing this research and getting research [grants], but it would be amazing to see forensic labs adopt some of these techniques,” he said. “With the Venture Lab, I can see how that could happen.”