Five companies ‘graduate’ from Cornell incubators

As the pandemic pomp and COVID circumstances dissipate, Cornell’s business incubators officially graduated five startup companies – formally known as the Class of 2021 – on June 7 and helped to put them on the fleet highway to success.

Lou Walcer, director of the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences, and Robert Scharf, director of the Praxis Center for Venture Development, conferred certificates to the leadership of the freshly minted graduating groups: Ava Labs, Exotanium, Halomine, Sonder Research X and Zymtronix.

“Having incubators on campus is an important element of our innovation ecosystem. They take university discoveries and get them to have impact by turning them into products and by turning them into services from which society can benefit,” said Emmanuel Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation, in his keynote at the graduation ceremony.

Founded in 2008, the McGovern Center incubates Cornell life science startups, while the Praxis Center – which began in 2019 – focuses on developing and strengthening business plans for young engineering companies.

“Our incubators find ways to take these nascent technologies and early discoveries,” Giannelis said, “and nurture them through that very difficult path – which requires also the determination of entrepreneurs.

“I’m a passionate believer about the importance of Cornell not only being a top research university, but also to be a top innovation university,” he said, “since innovation is basically the other side of the same coin.”

The McGovern Center and the Praxis Center will graduate their Class of 2022 later this fall.

The 2021 graduating companies are:

Ava Labs, Inc. joined the Praxis Center in November 2019. Ava Labs is a blockchain platform developer that reduces the financial expenses related to deploying capital. Its blockchain provides higher transaction speed and simplifies trading of assets compared to older blockchain technology.

The company was founded by Emin Gün Sirer, CEO, a former Cornell associate professor of computer science, while founder Maofan “Ted” Yin, M.S. ’19, Ph.D ’21, is chief protocol architect; founder Kevin Sekniqi, M.S. ’18, is chief operating officer; and John Wu ’92 is the company president. Ava Labs products are based on research co-authored with Robbert van Renesse, professor of computer science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

Carrianne Fairbairn, executive assistant, accepted the certificate.

Exotanium, graduating from Praxis, develops cloud-resource optimization that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help other companies reduce spending – by as much as 90% – in the cloud.

Hakim Weatherspoon, professor of computer science (Bowers CIS), is the company CEO. He founded the company in 2018 with fellow Cornell researchers Zhiming Shen, Ph.D. ’17, the chief technology officer, and van Renesse, chief scientist.

Halomine develops novel disinfectant products that increase the longevity of chlorine-based disinfectants. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the company received Cornell’s permission to conduct research in the McGovern Center labs in Weill Hall to find ways to help alleviate pandemic-related problems.

The technology grew from collaboration between Minglin Ma, associate professor of biological and environmental engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and former postdoctoral researcher Mingyu Qiao.

In 2019, the researchers partnered with Ted Eveleth, MBA ’90, to launch Halomine. The company is graduating from Praxis. Qiao now serves as the company’s chief science officer.

Sonder Research X, a biotechnology company in the McGovern Center, develops therapeutics for the detection, monitoring and treatment of eye disease and cancer. The company is now held by Aufbau Medical Innovations.

Sonder uses biological ways to efficiently deliver recombinant proteins into the sensory tissue of the eye and the retina.

The technology was developed by John T.G. Pena, M.D. ’11, former assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medicine and principal investigator at Dyson Vision Research Institute.

Zymtronix is a company that stabilizes proteins for a variety of industries. When the company joined the McGovern Center in 2014, it stabilized enzymes and aimed to clean up toxic water leftover from fracking. Today the company, led by Stéphane Corgié, CEO and chief technical officer, develops proteins for the food, flavor and fragrance industries – where precision enzymes are needed.

 
 

Startups flourish in Cornell’s clean energy ecosystem

When Kristina Hugar was working on her Ph.D. at Cornell, she wasn’t just doing science for science’s sake.

“I care very deeply about the environment and climate change, and I wanted to figure out a way to focus my career and life on addressing the defining crisis of our time,” said Hugar, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’16, whose dissertation research improved alkaline exchange membrane materials to make alternative energy sources more effective.

She, like scores of other clean energy entrepreneurs, have found at Cornell an innovative, powerful ecosystem that supports the transition to a sustainable and decarbonized economy.

Ecolectro’s next-generation technology eliminates the need for the rare metals found in today’s fuel cells and electrolyzers, making green hydrogen production cheaper and reducing reliance on rare metals.

It was Cornell’s clean energy ecosystem that made Hugar’s vision a reality. As she was completing her Ph.D. in 2015, a Cornell colleague – Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’14 – proposed they collaborate to commercialize her research. In June 2015, they founded Ecolectro to create a cleaner, cheaper and more scalable green hydrogen – a crucial step in achieving a decarbonized economy, Rodríguez-Calero said. “Hydrogen is a $150 billion market. Most people don’t realize that it’s used in the production of everything from fertilizer to peanut butter.”

The strong foundation startups have found in Cornell’s clean energy ecosystem has helped them attract significant outside funding.

Ecolectro recently closed a $4.5 million funding round led by Starshot Capital with support from investors including Toyota Ventures. And it just joined a new consortium aiming to create a Northeast research hub focused on hydrogen energy.

Dimensional Energy, co-founded by two Cornell faculty members and alumni, won $3.1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) earlier this year – part of $7 million in federal grants awarded to Cornell researchers and startups to advance novel clean energy research. And in the agriculture sector, Capro-X, which upcycles dairy waste, has received $100,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and $1.374 million in National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grants.

These and many other fledgling companies have leveraged support from Cornell resources such as the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences and the 76West Clean Energy Competition, which is administered by Cornell and funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

“McGovern provided us with the kind of collegial environment you would associate with being a part of a much larger company and exposure to vital connections,” Rodríguez-Calero said. “And participation in 76West gave us the opportunity to communicate the potential impact of green hydrogen to a larger audience.”

New resources for clean energy

Cornell’s clean energy ecosystem includes new programs designed to support entrepreneurs working toward climate solutions.

Diversity in ClimateTech recruits, educates, inspires and supports capitalization for clean energy founders who are Black, Indigenous, people of color and women. The ClimateTech Prototyping Hardware Accelerator at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works provides clean energy entrepreneurs with state-of-the-art prototyping lab space and materials, one-on-one mentorship and networking opportunities. Both programs receive funding from NYSERDA.

The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, launching this year and housed in the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, will harness Cornell’s strengths in collaborative scholarship and entrepreneurship and aims to mobilize investors and collaborators to accelerate the development of large-scale climate change solutions.

“With the 2030 Project, we aspire to translate transdisciplinary research and expertise across Cornell into solutions and actions for a safer, healthier, decarbonized world,” said Benjamin Z. Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a co-chair of the initiative. “As we respond to urgent climate challenges, entrepreneurs and innovators working on clean technologies and carbon dioxide removal are essential partners in our efforts to demonstrate and scale breakthrough solutions, with a focus on inclusive pathways for a better, brighter future.”

And in 2021, the College of Engineering hired David Putnam, its first associate dean for innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Our aspiration is to be the first college of engineering that consistently comes to mind when people talk about who does entrepreneurship right, including in the clean technology space,” said Lynden Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. “Our faculty are involved in a range of groundbreaking initiatives, including researching wireless charging for electric vehicles, developing cost-effective batteries that use earth-abundant materials like aluminum and zinc, and pioneering photocatalytic processes that convert carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into a low-carbon, synthetic jet fuel.”

Offering support to emerge from the lab

In 2016, two Cornell engineering professors each applied separately for funding from NEXUS-NY, a clean energy business accelerator funded by NYSERDA. NEXUS-NY recognized the similarity of their ideas and introduced them.

Dimensional Energy’s head of research and development, Brad Brennan, aligns the focal point of the solar concentration for its solar reactor at the startup’s Carbon X-Prize pilot site in Wyoming.

From there, the professors – David Erickson, the S.C. Thomas Sze Director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Tobias Hanrath, the Marjorie L. Hart ’50 Professor in Engineering in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering – co-founded Dimensional Energy with NEXUS-NY mentor Jason Salfi ’92.

Dimensional Energy uses its innovative reactor, based on Cornell research, to harness sunlight and hydrogen produced through electrolysis to transform captured carbon dioxide into energy-dense synthetic gas. This “syngas” can be converted into products typically reliant on fossil fuels. The startup’s first offering is a low-carbon and high-performing jet fuel.

As Dimensional Energy gained traction and hit technical milestones, Cornell offered the support it needed to emerge from the lab, says Salfi, CEO and co-founder. “McGovern provided space on campus to do catalyst research and safely test our reactor, allowing us to accelerate our growth and ability to pilot our tech in the field – a pilot funded by a seed round largely filled in by our extended Cornell family,” he said. “Having coworking space at Rev that is networked nationally signals Ithaca and Tompkins County’s commitment to building a vibrant startup community.” The startup also received valuable support from the Academic Venture Fund through Cornell Atkinson.

Clean energy startups find an ecosystem at Cornell that supports the transition to a sustainable, decarbonized economy.

That strong foundation has attracted strong funding opportunities. Dimensional Energy has received over $6 million in grants from the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and Solar Energy Technologies Office, closed a $3 million seed round and competed as a finalist in the $20 million Carbon X Prize competition. The startup plans to use its most recent $3.1 million in funding from ARPA-E to 3D-print ceramic components for its reactors that can run on low-carbon electricity sources.

Meanwhile, Capro-X, co-founded by Juan Guzman, M.S. ’14, Ph.D. ’17, and Largus T. Angenent, a former Cornell associate professor, is working toward elevating sustainability in the dairy industry by upcycling a byproduct of Greek yogurt.

Capro-X’s fermentation technology is based on research conducted in Angenent’s Cornell laboratory. WheyAway, the startup’s biotech solution, uses naturally occurring nonGMO microbes to turn the waste into clean water and environmentally friendly chemicals used in consumer products.

Each cup of Greek yogurt produces three cups of acid whey waste that needs to be trucked – increasing greenhouse gas emissions – to other farms for feed and fertilizer or wastewater treatment plants for processing. New York is the largest producer of yogurt in the country, and its producers create 300,000 gallons of acid whey waste daily.

The company projects that by treating just 10% of the acid whey waste produced in New York, it can yield 500,000 gallons of environmentally friendly chemicals annually and prevent 10,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions caused by trucking the waste to other sites. Capro-X won a $250,000 prize in the 2019 Grow-NY food and agriculture competition, administered by Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement.

“Looking back, the opportunities and experiences that I was afforded as a student gave me a strong foundation to build a science-based startup from scratch,” said Guzman, CEO. “Cornell’s entrepreneurship ecosystem really makes this area ideal for growing a new company.”

Juan Guzman, M.S. ’14, Ph.D. ’17, co-founder and CEO of Capro-X, introduces his startup at the 2019 Grow-NY Food and Agriculture Competition. Capro-X converts acid whey waste from Greek yogurt into environmentally friendly chemicals and biofuels.

The company is now fundraising to continue growing its team with the goal of marketing their green chemicals later this year, and installing its first commercial system in 2024.

Ecolectro’s new funding will advance the commercialization of its next-generation technology, which eliminates the need for the rare metals found in today’s fuel cells and electrolyzers, making green hydrogen production cheaper and reducing reliance on rare metals.

Its technology illustrates the power of Cornell’s clean energy ecosystem. The tech grew out of collaborative research in the College of Arts and Sciences in the laboratories of Héctor D. Abruña, the Emile M. Chamot Professor of Chemistry, and Geoffrey W. Coates, the Tisch University Professor of Chemistry, with whom Hugar completed her graduate research. Both professors are scientific advisors to Ecolectro – Coates is also a scientific co-founder – and Cornell Atkinson fellows; their laboratories are part of Cornell’s Center for Alkaline Based Energy Systems.

“I am a big believer in the power of Cornell’s networks,” said Rodríguez-Calero. “We have leveraged these to find investors, development partners and employees, many of whom attended or are affiliated with Cornell.”

Ag genetics startup Meiogenix joins the Center for Life Science Ventures

By Blaine Friedlander March 17, 2022

Meiogenix, a next-generation technology startup that helps agricultural crops – through chromosome editing – find their own genetic solutions, has joined Cornell’s Center for Life Science Ventures business incubator.

The company aims to help plant breeders increase the speed and precision by helping crops boost yield, repel pests, thwart disease and strengthen quality traits. The new home in the McGovern Center will provide a U.S. base for the company, which is headquartered in France.

“We are speeding up nature’s work,” said Luc Mathis, CEO of Meiogenix. “Agriculture must adjust to climate change and move away from adding chemicals to fields. In the case of what we do, there is no foreign DNA in the final products, and even no mutation – it’s completely natural.”

Joining Mathis at the company is Gagan Sidhu, Ph.D. ‘11, who leads the genomics and traits group at Meiogenix. It was her Cornell doctoral research on cell biology and recombination in maize that earned the attention of Meiogenix scientists.

In the mid-19th century, Gregor Mendel experimented with peas to find desirable characteristics by “crossing” them – a biological tool that was in use for almost 200 years. Then, over the last two decades, genetic engineering technology shortened Mendel’s process.

Now, Meiogenix focuses on the molecular and recombination process. Rather than manipulate individual genes, it allows the meiosis – a cellular reproduction process – to rapidly guide superior traits.

“Plants already have the genes to solve the problems,” said Wojtek Pawlowski, professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who is a research adviser to Meiogenix. “They just need help accessing them.”

While gene editing techniques like CRISPR focus on small changes by editing DNA in a gene, Meiogenix uses chromosome editing to enable targeted breeding for complex traits like yield, disease tolerance, health and quality.

“We want to help bring sustainable, diverse and economically viable healthy food to the market with this new style of plant breeding,” Mathis said.

In early 2020, Meiogenix began working with Bayer, the crop science giant, to develop plant breeding and genome editing technologies. Around the same time, the company partnered with Cornell to improve maize. As the company joins the McGovern Center, they will focus on advancing tomatoes and other field crops.

“Meiogenix’ technology has the potential to achieve the same – or better – fast plant improvements that can be produced by genetic engineering, without the genetic engineering. Using natural meiotic processes, they’ll be able to help feed the future  world,” said Lou Walcer, director of the McGovern Center. “We are thrilled to have them here at Cornell.”

The European unit of Meiogenix is focused on basic research, collaborating with academic groups at CIRAD, the Curie Institute and Hamburg University. The Meiogenix U.S. operation – based at the McGovern Center incubator, which will give the company access to Cornell academic and research resources – will focus on commercial development.

With its new patents and strong investor support, the company starts fresh.

“For Meiogenix, it’s a restart,” he said. “Which is why we joined the Cornell campus. McGovern is a life sciences incubator within the world’s top agricultural university. We are getting access to a unique network and it is the perfect environment for us. It also builds trust with our partners.”