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KU Investment in Training Leads to NASA Award for KU Startup Company

Monday, June 15, 2015

LAWRENCE — A new University of Kansas investment in training and support for startup companies formed from university research is already beginning to pay off. A KU startup company has received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from NASA to further develop an unmanned aircraft system collision avoidance radar. 

The company was founded by Lei Shi, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, based on technology he co-invented with his faculty adviser, Christopher Allen, professor of electrical engineering. The goal of the grant is to help advance the invention into the marketplace.

SBIR awards are made to small companies to support technological innovation through the investment of federal research funds in critical U.S. priorities to build a strong national economy. Federal agencies with extramural research and development (R&D) budgets that exceed $100 million are required to allocate 2.8 percent of their R&D budget to this program. Eleven federal agencies participate.

In Shi’s case, the company is one he launched in 2014 through the KU Catalyst student entrepreneurship program: UAVradars LLC. The startup is located in the Bioscience & Technology Business Center (BTBC) on KU’s west campus and is the third startup company created this year from licensed KU technologies. 

KU Innovation and Collaboration (KUIC), the university’s bicampus technology partnership and commercialization office, has been working to promote SBIR proposals. Earlier this year, KUIC, in collaboration with the BTBC, launched an SBIR Assistance Program funded by a grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce to assist KU entrepreneurs in leveraging SBIR grants to fund their companies. The program consists of workshops held three times a year to help qualified KU startups prepare and submit SBIR proposals and intensive one-on-one assistance in program strategy, proposal development, review and submission. 

More than 60 KU researchers and BTBC entrepreneurs have now attended two workshops. Assistance has been awarded to six companies in submitting SBIR proposals. Shi’s company was a pilot for the program, and his NASA award is its first program success. 

“Obtaining the SBIR award would have been impossible without everyone’s guidance, help and support,” said Shi, who received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at KU in 2005. He has received research funding in the past from NASA. He also worked for Honeywell FM&T in Kansas City before returning to KU in 2011 as a Madison and Lila Self Graduate Fellow.

“In the near future,” Shi said, “unmanned aircraft systems will be a multibillion dollar industry within the U.S., with uses in agriculture, film and photography, package delivery, search and rescue, and much more. However, avoiding airborne collisions is a safety hurdle that must first be overcome. The radar we’re working on is ideally suited for this purpose.”

Julie Nagel, interim associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship, said she is pleased with the early success of the SBIR Assistance Program. 

“UAVRadars was a great candidate for SBIR funding as the company’s technology aligns so well with NASA’s priorities,” Nagel said. "The company needed objective external advice from knowledgeable experts and some help navigating the application process with NASA. The SBIR award validates the technology and provides the boost needed to launch the company and continue product development toward bringing his invention to the marketplace.”

“I believe KUIC's new SBIR support program will help increase the number of awards given to Kansas-based startups,” Shi said, “bringing more federal small business funding to our state.”