The Dreams to Reality Incubator: open for business

From left: P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., MBA, Arthur L. Kellermann, M.D., M.P.H.
From left: P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., MBA, Arthur L. Kellermann, M.D., M.P.H.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, the Dreams to Reality Incubator (D2Ri) is the place where students, faculty and local businesses work to develop partnerships for introducing new products to market. D2Ri officially opened its laboratory in the Engineering Research Building with a recent ribbon cutting ceremony. Five companies were showcased at the ribbon cutting, two of which are funded by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI).

Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., professor and chair of VCU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, championed the formation of the D2Ri. Topsakal is also the director of CCI’s Central Virginia Node. He dreamed of increasing innovation in Virginia by creating a space for VCU Engineering faculty, staff and students to build and understand the steps in creating a successful business.

"The Dreams to Reality Incubator is meant to support faculty and students to make their ideas come to life. There has always been a gap between faculty/students’ initiated research ideas and turning those ideas into marketable products. D2RI is the bridge that closes this gap," Topsakal said, regarding the importance of the D2Ri program.

Membership in the incubator includes a 12-month program for faculty-student teams during which students learn business topics like navigating the patent process and finding investors. With the support of Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean of the VCU College of Engineering, Topsakal was able to recruit five companies for the start of the D2Ri. VCU’s Innovation Gateway and the da Vinci Center also played a major role in creating the blueprint for this new venture.

McKenzie Piper speaking about her company’s mask, Celsius.
McKenzie Piper speaking about her company’s mask, Celsius.

Richmond companies are already seeing value in the D2Ri. Five companies have partnered with the program, two of which were created with the help of the incubator and three that existed before the program.

Companies VirtualPLC and SymPle Solutions, were funded by CCI and began as proposals in the program. Pre-existing companies Pascal Medical, TekStyle and Infralight received support in continuing their business ventures through this incubator.

TekStyle, founded by Topsakal and graduate student McKenzie Piper, is currently testing its first product, a functional face mask called Celsius. The mask uses textile-integrated nanoparticles for self-cleaning to create a hostile environment for viruses such as COVID-19.

Newly appointed director of the D2Ri, Michael C. Mancini, Ph.D., director of project outreach and professor at VCU Engineering, plans to continue the expansion of the program.

“Commercialization is a way of taking knowledge made at the university and packaging it in a form the public can use.” Mancini said about the D2Ri initiative. He acknowledges starting a business is difficult, but incubators make it easier by providing a space for teams to learn from and motivate each other.

The new laboratory was renovated to accommodate workshops and courses to educate the teams about business. VCU faculty and student companies are encouraged to join the incubator to gain hands-on skills about innovating and producing products for the market. More information about joining the incubator.