Cornell startups get $3M from NYS to impede disease outbreak

By Blaine Friedlander, Cornell Chronicle September 29, 2022

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.”

Halomine, an antimicrobial coating technology company that graduated in June from Cornell’s Praxis Center for Venture Development incubator, received $2 million. Inso Biosciences, which develops genomic sample preparation platforms and is currently housed at the university’s Center for Life Science Ventures incubator, has received $955,000.

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.

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.

 
 

Transforming Yesterday’s Emissions into Tomorrow’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel: United Announces Agreement with CO2 Utilization Company Dimensional Energy

CHICAGOJune 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.

Source: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/transforming-yesterdays-emissions-into-tomorrows-sustainable-aviation-fuel-united-announces-agreement-with-co2-utilization-company-dimensional-energy-301568237.html?=prn

 

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.”

‘Go-getter’ director nurtures McGovern incubator to maturity

When Lou Walcer ’74 stepped into the new business incubator space on Weill Hall’s fourth floor 10 years ago, he saw a blank canvas of opportunity.

The Kevin M. McGovern ’70 Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences was entirely painted white, with empty laboratory benches and shelving, blank walls, new office furniture and a few conference rooms.

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.

 

Research engineer Sarah Poole, back, and Joel Tabb, co-founder and president of startup Ionica Sciences, watch as samples are distributed onto a proprietary Lyme disease assay plate using an automated liquid handling system, at the McGovern Center laboratory in 2019.

“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.”

Lou Walcer

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.’”

 

McGovern Center Director Lou Walcer presents the ceremonial key to Hao Shi and Iwijn De Vlaminck, associate professor of biomedical engineering, executives in the new company Kanvas Biosciences. As startups enter the center, they get a “key” to campus.

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.”

 

Kristina Hugar, Ph.D. ’15, from left, and Gabriel G. Rodríguez-Calero, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’14, co-founders of Ecolectro, and Sarah Nathan, Ph.D. ’18, an analytical chemist with Ecolectro, a McGovern Center startup, examine a prototype polymer batch prior to shipping to an industry partner at Ecolectro’s Ithaca headquarters, located off campus.

Startups arrive

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.

 

Hao Shi Ph.D. ’20, co-founder and CEO of Kanvas Biosciences – the McGovern Center’s newest client – conducts research at the company’s new laboratory space there.

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.”

Dog DNA startup announces $75M in venture funding

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.”

Source: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2021/07/dog-dna-startup-announces-75m-venture-funding

 

Dimensional Energy emerges as $20M Carbon X Prize finalist

Dimensional Energy – a Cornell McGovern Center startup company that can capture industrial carbon dioxide and then convert it by way of sunshine into an environmentally friendly products like aviation fuel – has emerged as one of two finalists in the $20 million Carbon X Prize competition.

The contest’s winner will be announced this summer.

After developing small-scale models on the laboratory bench at the McGovern Center, Dimensional Energy brought their pilot reactor to Gillette, Wyoming, last fall for a long stretch of scaled-up testing. The group successfully demonstrated their technology with a 10-ton per year scale proof-of-concept solar fuels reactor that can turn carbon dioxide into a carbon-neutral fuel.

“We found that our conversion had percentage numbers that were high and successful, validating the whole process for the Carbon X Prize finals,” said Jason Salfi, Dimensional Energy’s cofounder and chief executive officer. “We have validated all the modeling we’d been doing for years, but now at a larger scale. The reaction ran as close to equilibrium conversion as we modeled the entire time – for about 10 weeks – without any degradation in catalytic performance. We got it done.”

In 2018, Dimensional Energy joined the McGovern Center and began pioneering artificial photosynthesis to produce environmentally green polymers and chemicals. Before the gaseous, industrial waste carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere, it is captured. After adding hydrogen and sunlight to the carbon dioxide in a reactor, it can emerge as a useful liquid fuel for aviation and surface transportation, or if desired, more durable products like plastic.

The pilot reactor was moved late last year from Wyoming to its new home in Tucson, Arizona – where ample sunshine exists – for the finishing touches in research.

Dimensional Energy started when New York’s entrepreneurial pipeline pieces worked perfectly. 

Tobias Hanrath, the Marjorie L. Hart ’50 Professor in Engineering, in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and David Erickson, the S.C. Thomas Sze Director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, had both applied independently for grants from NEXUS-NY –  a clean energy business accelerator funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

NEXUS-NY recognized that the two Cornell professors’ ideas were closely related and introduced them. The professors, along with Salfi and entrepreneur Clayton Poppe, who were working for NEXUS-NY as mentors, formed the startup company Dimensional Energy in 2016. All of them worked with NEXUS-NY to develop the current concept.

Source: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2021/02/dimensional-energy-emerges-20m-carbon-x-prize-finalist

Global startup summit taps Zymtronix as challenge finalist

Cornell startup Zymtronix – an industrial biotech company serving the pharmaceutical, food, agricultural and chemical industries – has been selected as a challenge finalist at the Hello Tomorrow 2020 global summit, March 11-13 in Paris.

The Hello Tomorrow group scouts the world for cutting-edge technology applied in the digital, quantum physics, biology, biotech and new-material realms.

“Hello Tomorrow is the equivalent of the Olympic games for ‘deep tech’ startups,” said Stéphane Corgié, CEO of Zymtronix, which is housed in Cornell’s McGovern Center.

“This is huge for us. This is huge for Cornell University,” Corgié said. “Deep technologies are challenging to translate from the lab into commercialization.

 

It starts with big ideas that can change the world, patents to protect those ideas, a demonstration of those ideas and execution to make those ideas into marketable products.”

Evaluating more than 5,000 applications from startup technology companies, Hello Tomorrow selected 80 finalists in 14 categories. Corgié will be among those finalists giving a three-minute pitch at Cent Quatre, Paris, to an audience of investors, representatives from major corporations, researchers, other startups and technology media.

Pitch winners in each of the 14 categories will get 10,000 euros (approximately $11,000). Those top pitchers then will make a one-minute final pitch. From there, the ultimate winner will receive 100,000 euros (approximately $110,000).

Zymtronix was selected as only one of six technology pioneers in industrial biotechnology, placing it in the top 2% of all applications from around the world. This is the first Cornell technology group selected for Hello Tomorrow’s final round.

“This is a chance for Zymtronix to be on a global stage, to network with global companies and share our work with some of the biggest entities in these industrial segments,” said Marie Donnelly, Ph.D. ’13, the bioengineering lead for Zymtronix.

Incorporated in 2013 by founders Corgié and Juan Diego Alonso, JD-MBA ’14, Zymtronix has since leveraged Cornell’s patents to provide materials and processes for cost-effective enzyme stabilization to enable green production methods. The company serves the pharmaceutical, agricultural, chemical, fragrances, and food, flavor and beverage industries.

Zymtronix’s adaptable materials allow precise control of enzyme performance. Similar to how wet sand can be formed into castles, Zymtronix metamaterials and enzymes can form structures that trap the enzymes in order to maximize productivity for industrial processes by making them reusable. These enzyme scaffolds can be adopted by manufacturers to produce ingredients for pharmaceutical, flavoring, fragrance, food, beverage and agricultural applications.

Last week, Zymtronix announced a strategic agreement with Tate & Lyle PLC, a British-based food ingredient manufacturer, for developing new ingredients, scaling-up and manufacturing.

“Pitching at Hello Tomorrow is fantastic recognition that we have been taking the right steps toward production at an industrial scale,” Corgié said.

Nerve-healing startup Renerva joins McGovern incubator

Renerva, a medical startup that is developing an injectable gel to speed the healing of damaged nerves and creating an off-the-shelf nerve-graft product that may spare patients life-long disability, has joined Cornell’s McGovern Center life sciences business incubator.

The company was formed concurrently at Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh.

“We’ve developed a novel way of manipulating nerve repair and improving the recovery of nerves,” said Jonathan Cheetham, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and chair of the company’s scientific advisory board.

“Other technology has focused on the late stages of nerve healing,” Cheetham said. “What we’re doing is trying to influence the early part of nerve healing that may lead to improved nerve function outcomes for patients down the road.”

Renerva’s first product, Peripheral Nerve Matrix, is an injectable hydrogel derived from porcine tissue that acts like a scaffold. It supports nerve-cell growth and tissue formation, said Bryan Brown, Renerva’s chief technology officer and an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a former Cornell postdoctoral researcher.

Millions of people in the U.S. suffer from peripheral nerve injuries or problems, and peripheral nerve regeneration is slow and not always complete, Brown said.

“Acute nerve injuries don’t heal well, so more than half of the patients have unsatisfactory outcomes,” he said. “This is a material that can be injected into the nerve – after a surgical repair – to speed and enhance the recovery, improve a patient’s quality of life and help them heal faster.”

Renerva’s second product, which could offer surgeons an “off-the-shelf” nerve graft that restores motor and sensory function, is in development. It could spare patients complications, discomfort and loss of function associated with nerve autografts, according to Lorenzo Soletti, Renerva’s president and chief executive officer.

“Renerva epitomizes the research nature of Cornell,” said Lou Walcer, director of the McGovern Center. “The company uses University research and technology, and it is extending that technology to help patients alleviate problems and pain. This is quite exciting.”

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense provided $2.4 million through a Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium award to Renerva to complete a preclinical program and begin human trials. Additionally, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health awarded $500,000 to accelerate development of the company’s products.

Peripheral Nerve Matrix is expected to enter clinical trials this year.

Source: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2020/01/nerve-healing-startup-renerva-joins-mcgovern-incubator