Op-Ed | CUNY innovation benefits society and our economy

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Researchers from the City University of New York have developed a device that integrates indoor navigation with augmented reality to help emergency responders find their way through poorly lit, potentially dangerous spaces to evacuate people in danger. 

 The group of researchers, composed of faculty, staff and a graduate student from The City College of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College and the CUNY Office of Research are currently refining the technology that one day could save lives. Their invention will be marketed as a smartphone app, providing real-time maps and turn-by-turn navigation, and eliminating the need for the costly sensors and 3D scanners currently on the market.

 The minds behind this exciting project received training and funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and are the beneficiaries of CUNY’s decade-long push to provide academic researchers with the acumen, resources and networks needed to translate their inventions into commercially viable ventures. 

The thinking is that if CUNY’s brightest scholars in the sciences, engineering and tech can produce breakthroughs that address real-world problems, their discoveries will have multiple benefits — diversifying the STEM workforce, establishing new pathways to employment for our graduates and in turn, driving a more equitable, inclusive economy.  

CUNY’s focus on leveraging the creativity of its research community can be seen in an array of new university programs that advance these goals to the benefit of society and our region’s economic development. 

City College recently won a $750,000 “Build to Scale” grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to fund the creation of the Center for Co-Innovation and Medical Technology, which seeks to translate product concepts to the marketplace through the development of medical technologies that address unmet clinical needs. The project, which will bring many new STEM-related jobs to Harlem, will also receive $750,000 in local matching funds from City College and a philanthropic donor.

The same enterprising spirit can be seen in the Blackstone Charitable Foundation’s summer announcement to bring its Blackstone LaunchPad entrepreneurship and skill-building program to nine CUNY colleges, a $6 million commitment to support career mobility. Students will receive resources and guidance to expand their mentorship networks, enabling them to pursue job opportunities and create their own start-ups. 

Leading the Push

And notably, starting in January, CUNY will oversee the New York Region Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Hub, an exciting, $15 million federally-funded program established by the NSF to provide entrepreneurial training and mentoring to diverse academic researchers. The award is the largest the NSF has ever conferred to CUNY and will allow these inventors to develop their scientific and engineering discoveries into products and build the enterprises needed to bring them into the marketplace. 

The New York Region I-Corps Hub has a related objective: giving our brightest minds the guidance they need to bring their innovations out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.

Through it, CUNY will lead a consortium of eight local colleges that includes Columbia University and New York University, which will work together to identify product opportunities and spearhead the creation of student- and faculty-run startups that address real-world concerns. 

Working in teams, guided by industry professionals and buoyed by seed money from the NSF, faculty and student researchers will work to identify promising product opportunities and form start-up ventures to commercialize them. CUNY will oversee approximately 30 I-Corps teams after the program launches. 

The I-Corps Hub will enable faculty and graduate student researchers like those who produced the indoor navigation system to sharpen their technological discovery, scale its production and bring it to market. Their experience illustrates the I-Corps program’s immense value.

Initially, they conceived the technology as a tool to help the blind and visually impaired, but a seven-week I-Corps workshop last spring guided them through a rigorous process of customer discovery, which showed a limited market for such a product. Through more than 100 interviews with architects, building managers, construction workers and firefighters, however, they determined their product could fill a great need for safe navigation by emergency responders. The inventors adapted the technology and it is being piloted at 10 sites across New York State. They are now seeking a patent.   

It’s a great example of our work to harness the ingenuity of CUNY’s community, and to expand access and support for entrepreneurs at a time when their innovations can be vital to our region’s pandemic recovery and long-term growth.

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.