Cornell labs regularly produce new innovations in the life sciences. Some of the recently promising include a better way to sterilize medical instruments, new components that can significantly increase the capacity and power of batteries, and a computational nitrogen management tool that helps farmers decide exactly how and when to apply fertilizer to their crops. Developing and marketing breakthroughs like these to the real world is a tough business, but the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences can help.
The McGovern Center is an incubator, designed to develop and assist startup life sciences companies, as well as companies seeking to commercialize technology that could potentially revolutionize the life sciences in the future. While the majority of companies in the center are based on Cornell technology, the incubator is open to any qualified company that is willing to work within the center’s program, even if its proprietary technology was not invented at the university.
“We work with young startups on the development of their product, their management team, and their business plan,” says Louis Walcer, McGovern Center director. The space for the center was included in Weill Hall when the building was built in 2008, but the center didn’t open for business until Walcer joined in 2011. Since then, about 250 potential startups have expressed interest in coming under the center’s wing; 15 were offered admission. “We take only a select few,” Walcer says. “They have to have done significant work on their product and company idea before we’ll consider them for the center.”
A Startup’s Venture with the McGovern Center
The journey from breakthrough in the lab to client company of the McGovern Center to full-fledged commercialization in the marketplace is a long one. Much depends on the hard work of the initial management team. Their ability to create a viable business plan, advance technology and product development, and win funding from grantors, venture capitalists, and others is crucial.
The first step is often a series of counseling sessions with Walcer. “In the very early stages, I talk with principal investigators about their idea,” Walcer says. “I ask them questions about their aspirations. Often, the PIs [principal investigators] don’t want to run a business. They want to be academics and continue discovering cool stuff in their labs, so we help them find someone to take the entrepreneurial lead. Usually that’s a former postdoctorate or graduate student from the lab, who’s familiar already with the technology. The PI might stay on as the scientific adviser.”
After the initial entrepreneurial team is established, the work of commercialization begins. That includes procuring a technology license from Cornell Technology Licensing (CTL) for Cornell inventions. Once a company has its license, Walcer may invite the management team to apply for a berth at the McGovern Center. “The center allows companies to practice and build out the structure already sketched out in their business plans,” Walcer says. “Our goal is to get a company to the point of being self-sufficient and well-funded so it can graduate from the incubator.”
Companies move out when they either have secured enough funding through third parties to function on their own, have scaled up production and marketing of their own product such that sales can support the company, or have been bought out by a larger company. Getting investors is often the key to graduation.
To this end, companies in the McGovern Center are required to work out and mutually agree upon incubation plans outlining the work they must do to graduate. “We focus on three critical axes,” Walcer explains. “These are the same things investors want to see: a solid technology with promise in an attractive market, a business plan that is validated, and a management team that can get the job done.”
Companies and Their Technologies
Currently, nine companies are clients of the center. All are in various stages of business development guided by Walcer, the center’s executives in residence, volunteer mentors, and consultants—all following the particulars of the client company’s specific incubation plan.
ZYMtronix is based on collaborative research from the labs of Emmanuel P. Giannelis, Materials Science and Engineering, and Anthony G. Hay, Microbiology, and founded by Stéphane C. Corgié, who worked on the original research as a postdoctorate in the Giannelis and Hay Labs. The company is developing and commercializing methods of entrapping enzymes to be used in various industrial and pharmaceutical processes.
ZYMtronix’s technology can be applied in a number of ways, but the most promising right now is to enhance the productivity of drug manufacture, resulting in lower cost production and increased availability of drugs. “ZYMtronix has achieved their first revenue through a development contract with a pharmaceutical manufacturer,” Walcer says. “Things look good. They have strong collaboration with industry manufacturers across multiple other applications as well.”
The repair of DNA may hold the key to longer life and better health, and Repairogen is looking to lead the way in this new health arena. The company is founded on technology from Weill Cornell Medicine—the research of Pengbo Zhou, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and J. David Warren, Biochemistry. Zhou and Warren identified a class of compounds that can be used to control the rate of DNA repair—especially in the skin—either speeding it up or slowing it down by blocking specific enzymes. Repairogen is currently applying this discovery to the needs of the cosmeceutical industry.
“They will have their own line of products for keeping skin looking younger, available through dermatologists and plastic surgeons,” Walcer says. “This allows for a quicker path to market with a goal down the line to apply this technology to the treatment of skin cancer.”
Research by Adam R. Boyko, Biomedical Sciences, is the core of Embark’s product, a genomic test for dogs. The test is co-labeled with the logo of the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and comes in a simple kit that dog owners can purchase for home use. Each sample sent to Embark for processing is compared against Cornell’s database of 150,000 canine genes. Customers get detailed genetic profiles of their dogs, which can tell them everything from how large their puppy will be at adulthood to what types of diseases it is genetically prone to develop.
“They [Repairogen] will have their own line of products for keeping skin looking younger, available through dermatologists and plastic surgeons,” Walcer says.
“All the samples go back to the Cornell database,” Walcer explains. “That allows researchers at the veterinary school to further build up the database and explore the canine genome and identify links between genes and disease in even greater detail.” Embark launched its product on the internet in May 2015, and sales have been steadily growing. Now they are developing a strategy to market the test through dog breeders and veterinarian offices.
The newest McGovern Center company is VitaMe, based on research by David Erickson, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. VitaMe, which joined the incubator in October 2016, is focused on miniaturizing diagnostic technology for home or field testing—for example, using a smartphone to analyze a blood sample.
“It’s like a diagnostic work station in your hand,” says Walcer. “They are especially interested in applying this technology to testing for Vitamin D deficiency in areas of the world where medical infrastructure is lacking.” VitaMe is currently discussing the terms of a seed investment from a major multinational company.
Ionica Sciences seeks to commercialize diagnostics for difficult-to-diagnose diseases. The company’s principals, Joel Tabb and Omar Green, both worked at Cornell spinoff company Agave BioSystems before launching Ionica. Their current focus is on the application of their technology to the diagnosis of Lyme disease. They are drafting documents for an initial investment by a leading philanthropy committed to joint development with Ionica for the company’s Lyme disease diagnostic test.
Fuel cells may be one of the best answers to the world’s needs for ecofriendly energy production, and Ecolectro is looking to capitalize on that. The company’s product line revolves around a polymer invented in the lab of Geoffrey W. Coates, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, that can help lower the cost of fuel cells while boosting their productivity. The polymer also has potential in the areas of electrolysis and chemical reactions. Currently the Ecolectro team is working on refining their efforts to focus specifically on one of the possible applications of their product.
Energy efficiency is also the focus of Conamix. The company is developing a process for making low-priced, nanostructured silicon at high volume for the anode side of lithium-ion batteries, based on research by Tobias Hanrath, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Conamix recently received $300,000 in a syndicated investment, led by Excell Partners of Rochester.
Lithium-ion battery components are the focus of Lionano, as well. Based on research from the lab of Héctor D. Abruña, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, the company offers new materials with more energy density for the batteries’ cathodes.
Recently Lionano received a number of federal Small Business Innovation Research grants to support its activity to commercialize advanced battery technology, and they’ve recently announced a $10 million plus investment led by the private equity firm Wave Partners, the battery manufacturer Dynavolt, and angel investors. “Lionano is on its way,” Walcer says. “They should be graduating from the center soon.”
SteriFre Medical is another center company that is only steps away from graduating. The company is based on the research of Czeslaw Golkowski, PhD ’91 Engineering and Applied Physics, who worked as a research associate in Cornell’s cold plasma research program. SteriFre Medical seeks to commercialize innovations in the application of non-thermal plasma, free-radical source technology for sterilization of medical equipment, and other uses. They are currently in the process of closing a significant equity funding.
What Success Looks Like
In addition to the current center client companies, two others have graduated since the incubator first opened in 2011: ArcScan and Agronomic Technologies.
ArcScan developed a test for patients about to undergo Lasik surgery to screen for conditions that rule out the surgery. The technology is based on work by Ronald H. Silverman and D. Jackson Coleman. Both were with Weill Cornell Medical College at the time of their research. ArcScan has done so well, it is now publicly traded on the Toronto stock exchange.
Farmers concerned about the cost and environmental impact of over or under fertilizing have found a friend in Agronomic Technologies. The company offers a subscription service to farmers, based on discoveries by Harold M. van Es, School of Integrative Plant Science, Soil and Crop Sciences, regarding the relationship between the application of fertilizer, the target crop, soil conditions, and the ambient weather at the time of application. With special software, the company can help farmers determine the exact right amount of fertilizer to use at any given time. Agronomic Technologies is now operating out of New York City and their subscription service is growing robustly, Walcer says.
For many of these companies, success centers on building up the management team, Walcer says. And this is another area where the McGovern Center can offer crucial help. “Investors invest in people. If the company is developing a new device or a drug, then the investors want to see someone on the team who has developed that kind of device or drug to market. That’s probably not going to be the PI or the graduate student.”
Finding Team Members
Often finding the team member with product-specific marketing experience comes down to tapping into Cornell’s rich alumni network. “There are a lot of alums in healthcare enterprises and healthcare investment, for example,” Walcer says. “I go to them and say, ‘I’m looking for a business lead for such and such a company, do you know anybody?’ We get a steady stream of resumes that way.”
The depth of the alumni network, and the ease with which Walcer and the companies at the McGovern Center can access it, sets the center apart from other academically affiliated incubators, Walcer says. “Our alumni network is an immensely powerful tool. It was the main reason the center was ranked ninth in North America by UBI, a Swedish firm that ranks incubators and accelerator programs around the world. Our center is five years old. When you look at the programs ranked one through eight, you see that they’ve all been around for 20 to 40 years.”