Promoting Technology Transfer of a Pumpless Solar Thermal Air Heater (Patent Number 10775058) Innovation using the Customer Discovery Method in a Historically Black College and University (HBCU)

S. Addo, P. Tyagi, D. Shetty
University of the District of Columbia,
United States

Keywords: historically black Colleges and universities (HBCUs), solar device, technology transfer, commercialization of innovations, customer discovery


Prior research details the large gap that exists in the technological transfer of innovation between HBCUs and non-HBCUs. This is compounded by HBCUs being under-resourced, having decreased focus on research and innovation, and inadequate institutional infrastructure for licensing innovations for revenue generation. Several federal and private organizations funded attempts are being made to transform HBCU innovators into revenue-generating entrepreneurs for both universities and researchers. One of such federally funded programs, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) Center for Nanotechnology Research Excellence (CNRE) in the University of the District is promoting innovation and intellectual property generation at HBCUs. Another federally funded program, NSF I-Corps focuses on training innovators on the commercialization of mature or patented innovations at HBCUs. The training is geared towards commercialization by first identifying key customer segments through a series of interviews. This paper discusses how our innovation, the Pumpless Solar Thermal Air Heater (Patent Number 10775058) functions/operates (support from NSF-CREST CNRE) and how we are promoting its commercialization using the NSF I-Corps customer discovery strategy. The Pumpless Solar Thermal Air Heater, already patented, is a portable, cost-effective, maintenance-free, healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable way to heat rooms/spaces without using fossil fuel. This innovation uses a heat exchanger that creates net pressure to mobilize air heated by the sun radiation without utilizing any fan or mechanical pump. The heat exchanger is designed for a compact solar thermal air heater that is mounted in the exterior part of the home near a sun-facing window. This heat exchanger is designed to (a) draw indoor cool air inside the solar thermal collector, (b) heat the air by utilizing heat from the solar absorber, (c) push the heated air indoors. The manufacturing of the heat exchangers is better accomplished with the help of metal 3D printing. To promote the commercialization of our innovation, we participated in the NSF I-Corps Introduction to Customer Discovery. As part of the customer discovery process and to determine potential customers’ perspectives and perceptions of our innovation, we interviewed 30 prospective end users. Through the interview process, we tested various hypotheses to identify key value propositions of this innovation and find the market segment that will be more responsive and early adopters of our innovation. The interview process: allowed us to identify key challenges of potential end-users, supported and validated some of our tested hypotheses, helped us to discover new health and environmentally related issues, and aided us to discover the innovation’s market segment and the early adopters we need to target. We plan to do additional 20 interviews to validate/invalidate new hypotheses discovered during the initial 30 interviews conducted and subsequently continue the commercialization processes for this innovation (development of prototypes). We are also planning to develop training modules based on this experience to train engineering students in the University of the District of Columbia under the federally funded NSF-CREST CNRE project.