Office of Technology Commercialization Helps Navigate IP, Startup ‘Maze’
Colorful, straightforward, and compact, the Phase Maze—a stackable, interchangeable series of hand-held games about the size of a box of Pop Tarts—may find its place on toy store shelves and in online shopping carts some future holiday season.
Dreamed up in a Chicago high school by Maanav Iyengar ’23 and eight close friends, Phase Maze is an addictive game that requires users to guide a ball bearing through intricate mazes of varying difficulty. Its origin story follows the familiar narrative of scrappy start-ups: a brilliant idea, a blur of all-night work (in this case, 3D printing in a basement), jockeying to get the product on retailers’ radar, a satisfying burst of sales, and a gleeful struggle to keep up with orders.
The twist in Phase Maze’s narrative comes courtesy of the partner Iyengar didn’t go to high school with: WPI’s Office of Technology Commercialization.
The office typically helps faculty and grad students bring inventions to market in return for some level of royalties and ownership in the company, but OTC support is also available to undergraduate student inventors, and a growing number are taking advantage, said OTC Director Todd Keiller.
“If we are licensing to an existing company, we get royalties and other fees based on success,” Keiller said. “If we license to a startup, we get royalties and equity. There is a steady flow of students through our office, which not only tests their idea for real life commercial potential, but provides a great educational experience.”
Iyengar approached the OTC soon after coming to campus as a freshman.
“I could have started my company myself, but WPI offers me all the protection I need, so when I go to the ‘big dogs’ I know I’m not going to get completely rolled over,” the robotics engineering major said.
“I was inventing throughout high school, and wanted to get patent and IP protection,” he said. “I think WPI’s IP policy is the best in the country, and probably the world. If any school is going to support avid inventors and entrepreneurs, it’s WPI.” Iyengar said he applied to WPI partly because of the OTC’s generous approach to intellectual property.
Keiller said Iyengar has proposed six ideas to the OTC, two of which—the Phase Maze and an innovative solution to sewer issues in developing countries—WPI decided to support.
The university is transparent with student inventors about what the OTC process involves, and there are different paths students can take, Keiller said. Students whose inventions that didn’t involve faculty can claim 100% ownership, even if they’ve used WPI labs and resources. The inventor in that scenario typically assumes the entire expense of securing a patent.
Keiller said student inventors can also choose the option available to faculty members: WPI covers the patent expense and markets the invention in exchange for an ownership stake and share of the profits from the invention.
“Either way, we try to move them forward,” Keiller said. “Fifty percent of our patents have faculty and student inventors, twenty percent are student-only, and thirty percent are faculty-only. That means seventy percent of our patents have some sort of student involvement, and some are getting on the market. It’s a great learning experience.”
Iyengar chose to go with the faculty option, giving WPI a stake in his company and shared royalties from future sales. He has a few other ideas for Phase Maze, including working with museums to build life-size versions of the maze, but its pilot production run is done, and Iyengar is currently looking to sub-license the intellectual property to a major manufacturer or distributor. The OTC put him in touch with a patent lawyer and is helping secure trademarks and copyrights. They also put him in touch with an alumni network of mentors who help student inventors navigate the process.
For the university, in addition to a revenue stream, the process can create lasting relationships as undergraduate inventors become alumni. And Keiller said many graduates who went through the OTC process have found the experience valuable when it came time to start their careers or their own businesses.
Daniel Peleaz ’20, for example, participated in WPI’s National Science Foundation-funded I-Corps entrepreneurial training program when developing his 3D infrastructure mapping technology, and the university invested in his company, Cyvl.ai. Originally called Roadgnar, Cyvl.ai is now ramping up to $1 million in sales and has built up staff. Keiller said a recent round of fundraising netted the company another several million dollars.
Like Pelaez, Iyengar participated in the I-Corps program. Armed with knowledge gained from developing the Phase Maze, he now has his sights set on developing an affordable, “unclogable” septic tank-like sewer system that could improve working conditions and public health in India, where most of his family lives, and in poor and developing countries. He has a provisional patent—obtained with the help of the OTC—and is securing funds to build a prototype.
Keiller said Iyengar convinced the OTC that his sewer invention was meeting a critical need in the world, and that Iyengar was confident but open to input to ensure the process moved along. The OTC also filed for a patent for the sewer proposal in India, and is putting Iyengar in touch with contacts there to help him realize his vision.
He said Iyengar’s inventions showed potential usually seen more often among proposals from graduate students, doctoral candidates, and faculty. He said the best proposals come from a collaborative place.
“Good teams share and cooperate,” Keiller said. “The teamwork is really inspiring.”