How do you take an innovative idea from the conceptualization stage to commercialization? That’s what Pikesville native Justin Amoyal and his business partner, Mike Mazzocco, are learning through their work with the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps.
An experiential educational program, I-Corps helps inventors and technologists grow an idea for a product, assess the consumer need, define the industry mandates and, if warranted, develop a sound marketing strategy.
The one caveat is that the invention must be directed toward helping to solve a societal problem.
Amoyal and Mazzocco’s product, the SimPill, fits the bill. An Internet of things, or IoT, device designed for members of the autism community, the SimPill employs a combination of sensors to encourage medication compliance, patient independence and prevention of medications winding up in the wrong hands.
A graduate of Pikesville High School and George Mason University, Amoyal, 26, and Mazzocco, 50, a West Point graduate, U.S. Army veteran and inventor, met while consulting for the federal government.
Originally, they came up with the idea for the SimPill and envisioned it as an effective tool to fight opioid addiction. But last January, after attending a two-week regional I-Corps course at the University of Maryland, College Park, Amoyal and Mazzocco changed their minds.
“As we interviewed people, we began to speak with many individuals in the autism spectrum disorder community who expressed a dire need to improve the security and management of individuals with prescriptions,” says Amoyal. “They were also looking for a method to drive medication adherence and independence for the individual with autism.
“The hardware solution and innovative software our team has developed is tailored specifically for individuals with ASD and considers the lessons we have learned from parents, individuals with autism, psychiatrists, behavioral therapists and others within the ASD ecosystem.”
Daniel D. Kunitz, director of venture strategy and development at the University of Maryland and executive director of the DC I-Corps program, says he wasn’t surprised by the change in direction undertaken by Amoyal and Mazzocco.
“In the course of his research, Justin decided there may be a more immediate, clear path with the autism community,” Kunitz says. “If that’s the case, it’s good that he’s figuring it out now. That will greatly increase the likeliness of success and the impact of the product.”
After completing the DC I-Corps course, Amoyal and Mazzocco were selected to participate in the seven-week national I-Corps program, which runs from June 5-24. The program comes with a $50,000 travel stipend.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s course will take place virtually, but students will be able to use the stipend afterwards.
“The [national] program is extremely intense,” says Amoyal. “We’re working 14 hours a day trying to learn, get interviews and sculpt our products. We want to find out what we don’t know. That’s why the interview process is really exciting. A lot of start-ups have ideas and they think they’re great, but they don’t really know. Our goal is to talk to as many people as possible.”
David Powell mentored Amoyal and Mazzocco during the regional I-Corps program and then invited them to join the Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program at the Virginia Small Business Development Center Network at George Mason University. Powell is the senior business counselor in the office of entrepreneurship and innovation at ICAP.
The program is similar to I-Corps but not time-restricted, something that Powell believes will be extremely beneficial as Amoyal and Mazzocco move toward marketing their product.
Powell says he expects that by the time they complete the national I-Corps program, “[Amoyal and Mazzocco] will pretty well be able to say who their targeted customer is and their solution.”
So far, Amoyal and Mazzocco have conducted approximately 150 interviews and are seeking additional subjects.
Through their interviews, Amoyal says he and Mazzocco have learned a great deal about the needs of people with autism and their families. In particular, they realized that some of their previously made assumptions were off-base.
“We thought parents would be really concerned about kids getting into their medicines,” Amoyal says. “It turned out that wasn’t a concern. The real concern was they wanted to make sure that therapists, live-in helpers, all the people coming in and out of their house, wouldn’t steal the medicines. We also learned that parents most trust other parents. We learned what keeps parents up at night.
“We’re so amazed at how involved these parents are in their kids’ lives, how knowledgeable they are, how willing to help and how driven to solve problems,” he says. “It’s been a beautiful experience. They have so much on their plates. We want to be the tech part of the solution.”
Amoyal and Mazzocco are seeking to interview more individuals with autism, their family members and professionals who work in the field. If interested, email Justin Amoyal at Justin.firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about the SimPill, visit facebook.com/theSimpill.
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