The future of creating animal protein won’t need a drafty barn, but instead may reside in a toasty greenhouse: Forte Protein – a new startup that grows commercial animal proteins inside agricultural plants – has joined Cornell’s Center for Life Science Ventures business incubator.
The proprietary method that creates these nutrients and food ingredients has a propensity for quick growth and a sustainable, low-carbon footprint.
“We don’t use animals at all,” said microbiologist Kathleen Hefferon, Forte Protein co-founder and CEO. “Our carbon footprint is minimal. We’re not having to feed any animals and we don’t have animal waste. We are producing animal proteins with very near to zero carbon emissions.”
Rather than growing, feeding and maintaining livestock and then harvesting their protein, the company offers plant-based animal nutrients and food ingredients, ranging from the simple to the complex, grown affordably within days or weeks – and all without disturbing the environment.
“The concept of Forte Protein – this new business – remains absolutely brilliant,” said Lou Walcer, director of the Center for Life Science Ventures. “The company has figured out how to use plants to grow animal protein. It has potential to be plant-sourced material for use in feedlots, fish farms or commercial food ingredients – all without creating the need for a large amount land and all without creating methane or carbon dioxide.”
If a food company had a need for animal proteins, such as collagen, myoglobin, ovalbumin or casein, Forte Protein’s proprietary technology can grow it in plants using a technology with rapid duplication. The company can introduce the animal protein gene into a plant – such as lettuce – during a rapid-growth stage. The technology can be used for food, beverage, health and wellness, and other industrial applications. As an example, the system can produce casein – found in milk, the protein needed to make cheese – in about three days.
“In our system, the protein multiplies like crazy and then we harvest it,” Hefferon said.
Prior to the pandemic in 2019, Hefferon had joined the initial cohort of Women Entrepreneurs Cornell, known as W.E. Cornell, a program that helps women researchers develop and commercialize their own innovations into a technology-based business. She had sought to develop proteins for biofuels and create a sustainable economy, but as the pandemic progressed, she switched to developing proteins for food.
From there, Hefferon and Cornell filed for a patent, and she applied to develop her business at the Center for Life Sciences Ventures incubator. Hefferon brought on Tracy Kirkman as the chief operations officer and Deborah McConchie as chief revenue officer to develop a marketing strategy. Postdoctoral researcher Imran Kahn opened the Forte Protein laboratory in the Weill Hall incubator space in January 2023.
“There are a lot of people on the planet who are anemic, so I can see where we can help nutrient-deficient people or provide better access to high quality protein,” said Hefferon, who was a Cornell scientific researcher for more than two decades.
“I realize that my work, my ideas could help the world,” she said. “And that’s why I started this company.”
Amid war, Cornell faculty, staff support Ukrainian startups
In 2014, Charles K. Whitehead ’83, the Myron C. Taylor Alumni Professor of Business Law, was invited to lecture at a premier university in Ukraine – a country that many in the U.S., at that time, might not have been able to locate on a map.
But Whitehead found the country fascinating. As the son of a U.S. diplomat, he had visited Ukraine as a child, when it was part of the Soviet Union, and he returned in 2014 just after protesters had ousted a Russia-backed president and installed a new government.
It was a country in transition, Whitehead said.
“Ukraine was fascinating, a place where the historical dynamics were Russian, Soviet, but the people were looking to the West to develop a new economy, a new platform for business, and a new social infrastructure,” said Whitehead, who specializes in business and finance law at Cornell Law School. “I met Ukrainians all over the country who were clearly entrepreneurial and thoughtful, with new ideas and research, but what they lacked was an understanding of Western business and the ability to position themselves for investors.”
In 2019, after repeated visits to the country, including on a Fulbright grant, Whitehead founded eō Business Incubators with the help of Ukraine-born Felix Litvinsky, managing director of Cornell’s Blackstone LaunchPad, and a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Competitive Economy Program in Ukraine. With physical locations in Kyiv and Kharkiv and providing support nationwide, the incubator gives Ukrainian startup founders the skills and positioning to attract national and global investment.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic – and now the war – the incubator has supported more than 100 startups, valued collectively at close to $110 million. The teams have brought in approximately $10 million in investment and earn around $1.5 million in annual revenue. And incubator graduates have won every major Ukrainian national competition as well as numerous international contests, taking the $100,000 grand prize at the Dubai 2020 global startup competition and excelling at Web Summit (Portugal) and the Consumer Electronics Show (Las Vegas), two of the world’s largest technology conferences.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the incubation program has expanded, pivoting back to the online format it used at the height of the pandemic.
“They’re committed,” Litvinsky said about the incubator teams. “Through thick and thin, they’re doing everything possible to grab that value, that knowledge, because they’re looking forward. The soldiers are on the front lines, and our teams are working so that when the war ends, we have a foundation, and we can rebuild.”
Building lasting relationships
The eō – Latin for “to go,” “to prepare,” “to advance” – incubation program typically spans 16 weeks and involves a six-day bootcamp covering the fundamentals of launching a startup, followed by weekly lectures, trainings and meetings with mentors, and a demo day where startups can pitch to each other, and to investors and potential partners. Teams are usually matched with two mentors, experienced entrepreneurs from all over the world – including many from Cornell – who can provide each startup with expertise tailored to their development stage and product.
Dan Matsui, Ukrainian founder of the startup CareTech Human, participated in the incubator last winter, just months before the Russian invasion. He said the program helped him clarify and describe the value of his product – an at-home device that aids in early disease detection.
“There are a lot of specifics: how people like information to be presented, how should we structure timing, how to pitch to present your value correctly,” Matsui said. “In describing our product, we can be super technical but the business presentation – that’s been our weak part.”
Matsui said the connections and mentorship have been essential and have provided specialized knowledge and contacts in the U.S., where he hopes to solicit investors and bring his device to market. He also hopes to deepen ties with Cornell; he visited the Ithaca campus in December to meet with Louis Walcer ’74, director of the Center for Life Science Ventures, for consultation on an application to Cornell’s incubator for life sciences startups.
“We’re super grateful to the United States,” Matsui said. “And my connections here are very helpful. From each meeting, we learn more about how to position a product, how to pitch it, where we can mitigate risks, and what areas to pay attention to.”
The relationships built in the incubator are meant to last, Litvinsky said. “We continue to support every single individual who went through eō,” he said. “And we have to give so much credit to the Ukrainians who are looking forward to victory and the opportunities ahead.”
Adapting to war
When the war began, Matsui, with his wife and four-month-old twins, fled Ukraine for Poland, but they returned to Kyiv in May. Aside from pauses due to blackouts, he said his team of about 10 people are working as fast and as hard as ever, while devoting time outside work to volunteer for the war effort.
Litvinsky and Whitehead spent the first days of the war frantically working from the U.S. to ensure their Ukrainian staff and teams were safe, providing information to those fleeing or in shelters and helping to procure medical supplies. Once the invasion slowed, they were able to pivot the incubation program online – they’d already made the transition once for the pandemic – and the cohort they’re working with now is the largest yet, with 32 teams initially enrolled.
Some things in the program have changed; frequent blackouts and air raids have required flexibility from the once-strict attendance policy. In online sessions, one participant keeps an AK-47 on hand in case of attack; others sometimes log in from dark rooms as they wait for electricity to be restored. Still more have left Ukraine and are logging in from different time zones. Whitehead visited Kyiv in October, when a Russian cruise missile struck just 300 meters from his hotel, and again in December during Russia’s then-largest missile attack since the start of the war.
Despite the dangers and complexities, the program’s success and flexible format have made it attractive to other countries as well. “For the same reason we’re able to pivot because of the war, we can also fairly easily move into other areas,” Whitehead said. “In Ukraine, eō’s success has shown others in the region who might think about a startup economy, and also global investors, that building this kind of ecosystem makes sense.”
Whitehead and Litvinsky have begun a program in Moldova, another nonNATO country bordering Ukraine, and have been approached by contacts in Georgia and Poland.
Back home, Whitehead used his experience developing the incubator to help design the Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship program at Cornell Tech in 2019. In 2020, he was selected by Ukraine’s Minister of Finance to serve on the supervisory board of a new national Ukrainian Startup Fund, which provides small grants to tech startups. He has also lectured across Ukraine, as well as worked with Ukrainian government officials to assist in setting up new financial and business platforms.
“Rarely do you get a chance to put into practice the things you research and lecture about,” Whitehead said. “Our work in Ukraine has given me that opportunity.”
Plans are also in the works for eō Business Incubators to launch a venture capital fund devoted to Ukraine even before the war comes to an end.
The incubation program may have even more impact in Ukraine in the years to come, Whitehead said. “It teaches a way to think differently, to build business, to connect outside of Ukraine. These were all good things before the war,” he said. “In post-war Ukraine, this will go from being valuable to becoming fundamental.”
Cornell life science incubator graduates three startups
It’s time for the real world: Three brand new robust companies – one turning carbon dioxide into jet fuel, another enabling a green hydrogen economy and a group creating next-generation microbial imaging technology – graduated Nov. 16 from Cornell’s Center for Life Science Ventures business incubator.
After spending years acquiring sound business practices through trade mentors, attending professional symposia and obtaining enough capital to weather sometimes-blustery commercial climates, Dimensional Energy, Ecolectro and Kanvas Biosciences earned a diploma from the center.
“We’ve been talking about ‘it takes a village,’ but it’s an ecosystem,” said Emmanuel P. Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation, speaking at the graduation event. “You really need to have several things that come together to give opportunity for companies to materialize out of these early-stage technologies – which [Cornell is] now pursuing a lot more aggressively – because we really believe in having an impact beyond the academy.”
Lou Walcer, the director of the center, served as the master of ceremonies. In addition to Giannelis, Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff; Tami Magnus, executive director of the Cornell Institute of Biotechnology; and Ying Yang, the center’s associate director, spoke at the event.
Since 2011, the Center for Life Science Ventures has helped create startups based upon Cornell research, and to create jobs and advance economic impact for New York state. Twelve companies have graduated so far and the center’s companies have received $73 million in raised equity investment during incubation. More than $400 million in equity has been raised by center clients during and after incubation. The center’s clients have received more than $30 million in product and services sales.
From left, Kristina Hugar, Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero, Jason Salfi, Matthew Cheng and Hao Shi proudly show their company diplomas given to them by Lou Walcer, right, director of Cornell’s Center for Life Science Ventures business incubator.
The graduation celebration focused on the companies:
Dimensional Energy turns carbon dioxide into sustainable hydrocarbon fuels with renewable energy. Last June, United Airlines agreed to purchase at least 300 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from the startup.
“When a company like ours walks into the door of an incubator like this, you know, we have dreams and people need to believe in us,” said Jason Salfi, co-founder and CEO of Dimensional Energy. “I want to thank all of you for believing in us to realize our dreams.
“To riff a little bit on [the importance of] this ecosystem thing,” Salfi said, “What allows a tree to grow and make its way around to a broader space? In our case, the world – it is roots. It is roots and they are here in Ithaca.”
Gabriel Rodríguez-Calero, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’14, CEO of Ecolectro, and Kristina Hugar, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’16, chief science officer, accepted the diploma on behalf of their company.
Ecolectro develops novel polymers designed for the energy industry and the startup’s alkaline exchange materials reduce the capital costs of hydrogen technologies, which enable businesses to have access to cost-competitive green hydrogen.
“What Cornell has done, what the center did,” Rodríguez-Calero said, “was provide all of the amazing mentors, advisors, investors and everybody who came around to the idea of making green hydrogen super cheap – so that we can move away from fossil fuels.”
Green hydrogen is the biggest market that nobody has heard about, he said. “If you eat, you use green hydrogen, because all the fertilizer in the world uses it. If you use steel … you use green hydrogen.
“When you think about disrupting industries like this, you need somebody to give you a shot,” Rodríguez-Calero said. “And I think about what the center did. This center was very important in getting this seed of an idea to start.”
Kanvas Biosciences is developing a next-generation imaging technology to revolutionize microbial research and infectious disease diagnostics. The company’s technology adds speed, breadth and flexibility by illuminating microbial life.
Matthew Cheng, the company’s chief operating officer, and Hao Shi, chief technical officer, accepted the diploma.
Cheng said that he was appreciative of the center’s mentorship. “It’s admittedly bittersweet to graduate today, because we wouldn’t have a successful company without the support of this incredible team.
Cornell startups get $3M from NYS to impede disease outbreak
Two Cornell startup companies – Halomine, Inc. and Inso Biosciences, Inc. – have received nearly $3 million in New York state grants to thwart future outbreaks of infectious disease, including COVID-19 and its variants, and to help fortify the state’s expanding life science industries.
In total, 18 grants for companies and educational institutions were awarded $15.3 million from the New York State Biodefense Commercialization Fund, via the Empire State Development agency.
The state’s biodefense program – which grew out of the pandemic – was created to accelerate the development and commercialization of life science innovations that tackle infectious disease threats.
“New York state was hit first and hit hardest by COVID-19, and even as New York continues its progress in combating this virus and building back stronger,” said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. “We’re taking measures to ensure we’re prepared for the future.”
Laboratory sample prep is labor intensive, slow and prone to error, said Harvey Tian, Ph.D. ’17, the CEO and co-founder of Inso Biosciences. The biotechnology startup has developed an engineered microfluidic system, consisting of a benchtop instrument and consumable “chip” cartridges – roughly the size of the microscope slide – that can rapidly process samples to improve the sequencing sensitivity of novel infectious diseases.
The method provides a way to automate the handling of biological samples while maintaining precision, minimizing the use of manual pipettes and eliminate the need for more complex biochemical assays.
“What used to take hours in a laboratory, now can take minutes,” Tian said. “We’ve greatly accelerated the step in removing human material, which is critical in biodefense applications such as the sequencing and identification of novel infectious agents.”
This fall, Inso Biosciences will use the state funding to begin their product’s prototype development, as the company prepares to pursue and collaborate with potential partners in validation studies.
In addition to Tian, the Inso Biosciences co-founders are Adam Bisogni ’08, Ph.D. ’17, co-founder and chief scientific officer; and Professor Emeritus Harold Craighead, co-founder and scientific advisor, who is a veteran of technology commercialization with his co-founding of Pacific Biosciences (NASDAQ: PACB), a previous Cornell startup from his research group.
Halomine’s antimicrobial coating technology helps to maintain germ-free surfaces – such as stair rails, escalator handrails, food product conveyors and food preparation tables – by extending the life of chlorine-based disinfectants by days and weeks.
Normally, a chlorine disinfectant lasts up to 15 minutes, but the group’s main product, HaloFilm, is a spray-on, nontoxic chlorine extender that leaves a protective film, according to Ted Eveleth, MBA ‘90, the CEO of Halomine.
With the state grant, the company hopes to develop a new product, HaloAdd – an antimicrobial plastics additive – to create commercial food processing tools and medical devices such as catheters and ultrasound wands.
“Ideally, you want to make these plastic products embedded with antimicrobial properties,” Eveleth said, “but there are limited ways to do that. We think we have found the way.”
Pending regulatory approval, the product HaloFilm is nearly ready for commercialization, but the new HaloAdd has been proven-in-concept in the laboratory and the company looks to optimize the research, according to Eveleth.
In addition to Eveleth, Halomine officials are co-founder Mingyu Qiao, chief technical officer; and co-founder Minglin Ma, Cornell associate professor, biological and environmental engineering.
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.
“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.
Transforming Yesterday’s Emissions into Tomorrow’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel: United Announces Agreement with CO2 Utilization Company Dimensional Energy
CHICAGO, June 15, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — United and United Airlines Ventures (UAV) today announced an investment in and commercial agreement with Dimensional Energy, another step forward to reach United’s 100% green net zero commitment by 2050, without the use of traditional carbon offsets. Dimensional Energy’s novel technology removes the need for fossil fuels, converting carbon dioxide and water into usable ingredients for the Fischer-Tropsch process – a nearly 100-year-old proven technology used to produce fuels from coal or methane. While facilities around the world continue to use Fischer-Tropsch to produce fossil fuels, Dimensional will be one of the first to use it to produce sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).
Under the commercial agreement, United has agreed to purchase at least 300 million gallons of SAF over 20 years from Dimensional. This agreement further cements United’s status as an airline industry leader in sustainability. United’s SAF agreements represent the largest volume of SAF of any airline over the next 20 years, based on publicly announced agreements.
“Sometimes you have to look to the past to solve new problems, and we recognize that decarbonizing air travel is going to require combining proven technologies, such as Fischer-Tropsch, with the latest advances in science and engineering,” said Michael Leskinen, President of United Airlines Ventures. “As we grow our portfolio of companies like Dimensional, we are creating opportunities to scale these early-stage technologies and achieve United’s commitment carbon neutrality by 2050, without the use of traditional carbon offsets.”
Dimensional Energy was founded in Ithaca, New York, in 2016 and has spent the last six years refining its reactors and catalysts in both lab and real-world demonstrations. The company’s early success led to its status as a finalist in the first Carbon Xprize, and in September 2021, global climate technology nonprofit investor Elemental Excelerator funded Dimensional as part of its 10th cohort, which led to the company’s introduction to United. Dimensional has also received grants from the National Science Foundation and both the Department of Energy’s ARPA-e and Solar Energy Technology Office (SETO). The company began construction on a carbon dioxide to fuels demo in Tucson, Arizona in 2021. Commissioning of the facility has already begun, and it is set to begin operation this July.
“I am continually impressed by the team at Dimensional Energy as we scale our advanced carbon dioxide to fuels technology. On top of delivering clear environmental impact, our business model includes delivering durable benefit to local communities through creative partnerships. We envision a world run on conflict-free energy. United’s support of sustainable aviation fuel made from captured emissions is an important step in the aviation industry’s pursuit of carbon neutrality,” said Dimensional Energy Co-founder and CEO Jason Salfi.
Dimensional’s technology can run on all forms of renewable energy. At the Tucson site, they are using electricity from the Arizona grid, which gets an increasing amount of power from local solar panels. Future plants are slated to use hydro-power, wind-power and rapidly maturing concentrated solar, which utilizes heat from direct sunlight.
Dimensional can also utilize carbon dioxide from a variety of sources, be it straight from industrial sites (like cement plants), from Direct Air Capture (a technology that can capture CO2 from anywhere in the world), and biological processes like fermentation and biomass gasification.
Today’s announcement marks UAV’s fourth SAF-related technology investment, but its first the pathway of power-to-liquids: which creates SAF synthetically without the constraints of feedstock growth that is prevalent in other biofuel pathways. Launched in 2021, UAV targets startups, upcoming technologies, and sustainability concepts that will complement United’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 – without relying on traditional carbon offsets. Over the last decade, United has built a first-of-its-kind sustainability-focused ventures fund. UAV’s portfolio now includes SAF producers and other technologies including carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft, and urban air mobility.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
‘Go-getter’ director nurtures McGovern incubator to maturity
In time, it would become filled with fledging life sciences companies getting their start with the help of Walcer, the McGovern Center’s founding director.
“The role of the incubator is not just to provide a bunk for baby companies,” Walcer says. “The role is to propel their development by making them integral members of the Cornell community, and making Cornell’s immense resources available to them – without jeopardizing our role as a nonprofit institution.”
Since it opened in 2011, the center has helped clients earn $130 million in equity investment, $25 million in product and service revenue, and about $30 million in Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants – highly competitive federal research programs that seek potential startups for commercialization.
The McGovern Center is celebrating its 10th anniversary and throughout the success, the one constant has been Walcer.
‘We need a go-getter’
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Lindenhurst, New York, Walcer started his Cornell student career as an engineering major, then veered toward biology, turned briefly to Spanish and landed as an English major with a bent toward medicine.
After graduation, through networking and a nudge from the Cornell employment placement office, Walcer was first hired as a copywriter with William Douglas McAdams, a prominent New York City ad agency specializing in medical and pharmaceutical advertising.
Walcer continued working in advertising while he concurrently pursued an MBA from New York University. He then switched to the “client” side, serving in a variety of positions in marketing, business development, and mergers and acquisitions with major multinational pharmaceutical companies.
“I see us as the concierge. You need a special microscope? It’s over here. You need a machine shop? It’s over there. Every obscure piece of equipment that a startup needs probably exists somewhere on the Cornell campus.”
Leaving New York, he turned to the Midwest. Walcer was recruited as a business officer and a consultant for a young company in Cleveland, helping other midwestern startups as well.
Ultimately Walcer served as president and general manager of a company making medical devices for drug delivery. When it was sold in 2005, the Cleveland Clinic recruited him to incubate medical startups. He had a knack for the complexities of growing young companies.
Meanwhile, in the throes of the Great Recession in 2008, the late Robert Buhrman, M.S. ’69, Ph.D. ’73, Cornell’s senior vice provost for research, knew the kind of person he wanted to direct Cornell’s newly built Weill Hall business incubator space. Its mission would be to offer premier lab space and give scientists quality business acumen.
“We need a go-getter,” Buhrman said at the time, “who can interface well with the inventors, as well as with the investors.”
Months after Buhrman initiated his search for a McGovern Center director, Lou and his wife, Roberta Bandel Walcer ’74, were driving long distance one weekend. As Roberta thumbed through Cornell Alumni Magazine, she noticed an advertisement for the McGovern Center job.
She read the position description aloud to Lou, then said, “This sounds like it’s your job at the Cleveland Clinic, only this is for Cornell.”
Lou now says with a smile: “Let’s just say I was strongly encouraged to apply.”
He got the job.
A key role
Walcer developed the philosophy that would set the McGovern Center apart from similar programs across the country.
Walcer gives each company that enters the incubator the key to the city – so to speak. He had a large key specially made and presents it during a photo opportunity when new companies join.
“I see us as the concierge,” Walcer says. “You need a special microscope? It’s over here. You need a machine shop? It’s over there. Every obscure piece of equipment that a startup needs probably exists somewhere on the Cornell campus.
“The whole idea of the key emerged out of that,” he says. “When we bring a new client into the center, it’s like ‘Welcome, you now have the key to Cornellville.’”
Walcer introduces startups to key mentors, shows them established state and national programs to fill gaps in expertise or funding, or simply offers good ideas.
Adam Boyko, associate professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and his brother Ryan Boyko had developed canine swab tests to find the genetic basis for dog diseases and traits. Eventually, their venture would bring about the Embark Breed + Health DNA kit.
In the case of Embark, Walcer managed to mine the College of Veterinary Medicine’s strong alumni system to answer the startup’s marketing surveys. After asking hundreds of veterinary college alumni how they would use this DNA kit in their own practices, Embark built its business model around those responses.
And when Zymtronix joined the McGovern Center in 2014, it stabilized enzymes to clean up toxic water leftover from fracking. But getting traction was tough. Walcer suggested that the company offer its enzyme stabilization to a diverse set of businesses.
Zymtronix now develops stabilized enzymes for a range of commercial uses, including pharmaceutical and agricultural applications, as well as for the food, flavor and fragrance industries – where precision enzymes are needed.
In early 2020, Zymtronix formed a strategic agreement with Tate & Lyle PLC, a large British-based food manufacturer, to help create ingredients.
Stéphane Corgié, CEO of Zymtronix, has gained an appreciation for the business world under Walcer’s watchful eye. “Business is not a straight path,” he says.
Zymtronix has leveraged McGovern resources including a handful of skilled executives-in-residence – former company presidents, financial and venture capital experts, a pharmaceutical professional – and a large team of volunteer mentors.
The executives-in-residence and the volunteer mentors, along with Walcer, provide an intangible factor, Corgié notes.
“When you start a company, and especially if it’s in technology, you need people who can reassure you,” he says. “That’s where Lou has been excellent – listening, advising and reassuring.”
Gaining admittance into the McGovern Center is not easy.
When startups apply, Walcer uses several factors in the center’s “screener,” a rigorous assessment tool to determine potential. Retrospective linear regression analysis has shown that the screener proves to be a good measure of probable success. He prepares a full report and presents it to the McGovern Center Advisory Council for consideration.
“Lou’s process for assessing indicators of success and screening tools give the center’s Advisory Council the information they need to identify outstanding applicants,” says Emmanuel Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation.
“That process, coupled with the sense of family and dynamic mentorship that Lou provides continuously to the companies after their admission,” Giannelis says, “offers a framework for success with metrics to be almost unbelievable.”
Of the total 25 client companies over the past decade, seven have graduated – meaning they have enough venture funding to make it on their own. Fourteen startups remain active and four have exited.
In the U.S., there are about 1,400 business incubators, according to the International Business Innovation Association. UBI Global, an international incubator network, ranked the McGovern Center among the top 10 in 2015. “They stand out from average-performing incubation programs with better outcomes on economy enhancement, access to funds and post-incubation performance indicators,” the group said.
Companies that have graduated include Agronomic Technology – based on technology by Harold Van Es, professor of soil and water management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – who developed Adapt-N, a precision farming tool that helps farmers improve nitrogen fertilizer use. The group spent a year at the McGovern Center and graduated in 2015 – the center’s shortest tenured group. By late 2017, the company was purchased by Yara International, the world’s largest fertilizer maker, for an undisclosed amount.
“Lou brings to McGovern an incredible amount of enthusiasm for innovation and entrepreneurship, coupled with his extensive experience in business development,” Giannelis says. “His steady leadership has kept the McGovern Center and its client startups on a path of strong growth.”
The center’s newest client is Kanvas Biosciences, led by Iwijn De Vlaminck, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, and chief executive officer Hao Shi, Ph.D. ’20. The company uses a novel way to rapidly identify, quantify and map microbial organisms from any specimen with single-cell resolution and at a fraction of the cost of previous methods.
At the McGovern Center, the technology and the science are important. But the business stands front and center to optimize the commercialization of that science, Stéphane Corgié explained: “There is a path to success – and that path includes listening to the McGovern Center team of business advisers and listening to Lou.”
Embark Veterinary, Inc. – a canine genetics startup company that graduated from Cornell’s McGovern Center business incubator in late 2017 – announced $75 million in venture funding on July 26.
Founded in 2015 by Adam Boyko, associate professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and his brother Ryan Boyko, Embark’s CEO, the company will use the funding to make key hires and strengthen an ever-growing canine genetics database – with a goal to help dogs gain healthier and longer lives.
Like human genetics testing to find relatives or countries of origin, pet owners, breeders, or veterinarians can swab a dog’s mouth, send it in for the results, and confirm specific breeds and explore which genetic diseases the dog may be at risk for.
“We’ve been in the dog genetics realm for well over a decade, even though we’re nearing the sixth anniversary of Embark,” Adam Boyko said. “It’s been a labor of love to understand the origins of dogs, and through genetics, we are understanding dog behavior, looking for predisposition to illness and to understand canine aging.”
This round of funding was led by Lydia Jett of SoftBank Vision Fund 2, with other investors that include F-Prime Capital, SV Angel, Slow Ventures, Freestyle Capital and Third Kind Venture Capital.
Embark’s Dog DNA Kit can test and determine over 350 breeds, and more than 200 genetic health risks, by employing proprietary genotyping technology that analyzes 200,000 genetic markers, according to the company.
By the end of 2021, Embark will have processed nearly 1 million tests from owners, breeders and veterinarians, according to the company. This creates the world’s largest database of canine health and biological information, enabling Embark to make discoveries about health risks, traits and breeds and help dog owners, breeders and veterinarians to create tailored health care plans.
In 2018, Embark scientists published in PLOS Genetics the first consumer data-driven DNA research that explained why Siberian Huskies are associated with piercing blue eyes. With a large genetic database, the group had discovered a novel link with the dog’s chromosome 18.
In January 2016, Embark joined the McGovern Center, where it began to leverage university resources, according to Lou Walcer ‘74, the center’s director. The College of Veterinary Medicine’s alumni network answered the startup’s surveys, which helped forge Embark’s business model.
“Having the mentorship of Lou Walcer and the other mentors in the McGovern incubator provided valuable lessons; plus we were surrounded by other startups, which were at various stages,” Boyko said.
Embark was a corporate sponsor of the Ruff and Fluff teams at the Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl XIII in 2017 – the company swabbed all 78 pup participants. Additionally, Embark became the official dog DNA test of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2019.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that there’s nothing more important than the health of our family – and pets are a big part of our families,” said Ryan Boyko. “We’re proud to be partnering with veterinarians, breeders and dog owners all around the world to substantially increase the life and health span for all dogs, and – ultimately – for humans as well.”