February 2020 in Review

From Lab to LaunchWhat does it take to move technology from lab to launch? Startups participating in Luminate are getting first-hand knowledge in their second month of the accelerator program. For those contemplating taking the journey, Managing Director, Dr. Sujatha Ramanujan, provided an excellent overview of the four components of a healthy startup in the latest edition of Photonics Focus.

Download the complete issue here and look for Dr. Ramanujan’s article on page 6.

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SEMINAR HIGHLIGHT:
What to Consider When Developing an IP Strategy

Dr. Darius Sankey shared a new strategic framework for thinking about managing innovation

Darius Sankey, PhDIn month two at the accelerator, Luminate cohort III teams met with Darius Sankey, PhD, General Partner at Moore Ventures, former President of Ocean Tomo China, and current Luminate board member and mentor. Darius provided feedback on each company’s patents and gave them the crash-course version of the class he teaches as an adjunct professor at the Rady School of Management – University of California, San Diego.

“What you have to figure out is, are you a piece of the whole system? Or are you the whole system? Usually you’re solving one piece of a bigger puzzle,” says Darius. 

One reason many startups fail is the amount of money required for sales and marketing to build enough revenue for an IPO. Darius urged startups to focus instead on their patent portfolio and identifying the gaps they can fill with their technology, weighing the option of licensing over building an entire company if it makes sense. The market is there to buy IP. 

“If you patent what’s important in the market, even if you fail, you’re going to add value.”

Other key takeaways from Darius:

  • The most important patent is the earliest patent. Succeeding in today’s competitive landscape requires looking way beyond the present. Think about patents in the beginning, even as you bring your ideas to market for testing. 
  • All “jobs,” have multiple steps, and your idea is often just one of them. Understand where your IP fits in the bigger picture, and if you’re solving a problem that is both important and not otherwise satisfied.
  • Turn customer input into innovation. Darius recommends the book, What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services by Anthony Ulwick. 

Luminate startups also attended workshops on:

  • Business case modeling with finance and strategy consultant, Julie Marcellus, MBA
  • Employment law and New York State policies with HR Works
  • Corporate structure and tax considerations with Jason Klimek, Senior Associate at Boylan Code
  • Marketing and sales models for scalable growth with Michele Nichols, President of Launch Team Inc.
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COHORT III SPOTLIGHTS

SunDensity

SunDensity technologyThe number of solar power plants is increasing on a global scale, but the actual incoming light does not match what is best for solar panels. There’s room for much greater efficiency and more energy output. We spoke with Founder, President, and CEO of SunDensity, Nish Sonwalkar, ScD, MIT, about his company’s groundbreaking technology that’s helping save the planet by enhancing clean energy output from solar panels. 

Who is the target audience for SunDensity’s solution? 

NS: Our patent-pending Photonic Smart Coating (PSC) improves the efficiency of opto-electronic devices by enhancing and shaping the spectrum of photons. This groundbreaking technology can be applied in many areas of photonics, like architectural glass and infra-red and digital cameras, but our primary target audience now is utility scale solar power producers. The number of solar power plants in the United States alone is growing at a rate of 30% per year, and we can enhance the energy output of solar panels by 20% with our Photonic Smart Coating.

What makes SunDensity stand out from competitive offerings?

NS: Most companies will use anti-reflection coatings to enhance the sunlight and manipulate the spectrum of white light into the photovoltaics. Our Photonic Smart Coating is unique because we are shifting the spectrum of light to the color (wavelength) that is most favorable to the photo-sensitive device itself. The market for coating products is growing, but our photonic solution is novel and puts us years ahead of the competition.

How did you first get started, and where is your team now?

NS: I started doing research in the field of nanotechnology at MIT, first as a graduate student and then as faculty. My work developing photonics related to laser Raman Spectroscopy for nano-materials led me to solar, and I noticed that everyone was focused on semiconductors, making multijunction solar cells so more light is absorbed. No one thought about shaping the spectrum of light itself. I flipped the problem upside down and crossed a barrier to improve the quantum efficiency of light sensitive device technology, in particular, solar cells. 

SunDensity began operating at the lab scale with some of my graduate student employees in the Boston area from MIT, WPI, and Northeastern University. Once we moved to Rochester to participate as a runner-up in Luminate last year, we began working with employees and co-op graduate and undergraduate students, like Kalab Whittier and Samuel Tyler Phillips, at the University of Rochester and RIT to engineer and design nano-optical coatings. We’re now in the scale-up process and looking to grow our team in Rochester while maintaining our solar testing facility in Boston and beginning our manufacturing scale-up work with Cornell University and Binghamton University.

(From left to right) Kevin Debasitis, Sr. Director of Partnerships; Dr. Nish Sonwalkar; and Samuel Tyler Phillips at the 2019 Lightning Awards

What does it mean to you to be part of Luminate?

NS: Rochester and Luminate play a key role in providing the right ecosystem that is important for a company like ours, because we took a very different approach to innovation in solar energy. The funding plus the access to expert resources in photonics has given us enormous help in commercializing our unique solution, from assistance in the lab, to connections with the universities and other companies, to the guidance of your illustrious board members. Whenever you do something groundbreaking, there are more developmental challenges… What we’ve achieved over the last year, we could not have achieved in any other place or accelerator. 

How has this year’s experience been different from last year, when SunDensity was a runner-up?

NS: Because of our training last year and this year, I’ve been able to secure a lot of traction in terms of potential investors. This year has been different because we are now in the thick of commercialization and raising money. We can exploit the full breadth of solutions and help from Luminate to get to the funding that will allow us to build a phenomenal company. We have many investors lined up and hope to close our seed round with $1.5 million in funding soon. 

Dr. Nish Sonwalkar pitching at the 2019 Lightning Awards

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs just starting out?

NS: Entrepreneurs always like the process of invention, but where the rubber hits the road is creating a successful company out of your invention. That means moving past tinkering with your product to finding customers, partners, and investors. It requires a very different mindset, and it’s a community which makes a new venture successful. Don’t be shy to ask for help from those who have gone through the process before and tackled the challenges. If you’re considering joining an accelerator, make sure your product fits their specialty, and then take full advantage of the advisors and their expertise.

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Kilo Medical Solutions

NICU incubatorThe proper light environment is critical to a premature infant’s survival and long-term development. Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) across the nation currently use fabric blankets or incubator covers to control neonates’ light stimuli, with no standard policies and no way to measure how much light is blocked. Joshna Seelam, CEO and Co-Founder of Kilo Medical Solutions, shared how her startup is helping improve health outcomes of premature infants with the Brise-Solette, a device that’s applied to the exterior of infant incubators for greater light control and customization.

How does the Brise-Solette work?

JS: The Brise-Solette is a film that retrofits to existing incubator models to control how much light passes through. Having a gradation of light is important because you can personalize the light environment based on the infant’s needs and be able to react to vitals like heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. A NICU nurse can decide what is within the healthy range for a specific infant and, if the vitals are outside of those set parameters, the Brise-Solette will immediately go clear, alerting the nurse that they need to check on the infant.

With the Brise-Solette, we’re also automating light cycling and giving nurses data about infants’ sleep needs. Replicating the natural cycle of light is beneficial to developing circadian rhythms. Beyond that, we don’t really know what light level is needed at what age. We want to be able to say that when an infant is 24 weeks, they should be in this lighting environment. When they are 32 weeks, they should be in this lighting environment. Collecting and harnessing that data is going to help nurses avoid disrupting infants during deep sleep, so they can gain weight faster and grow.

Who is the target audience for the Brise-Solette?

JS: Initially, we want to sell directly to hospitals, which are using volunteered blankets or fabric incubator covers provided by the incubator manufacturing companies. Not only is there a huge sanitary issue with this, but it’s also a manual process. It’s up to the nurse to put it on and take it off, and it could be low on their priority list compared to giving care. We want to automate that process and help nurses focus more of their time on giving actual care that’s needed. In the future, our end goal is to partner with incubator manufacturing companies.

What other areas of health is Kilo Medical Solutions looking to improve?

JS: We want to stay focused on innovating in the pediatric medical space, because we often hear that that’s one of the fields that gets ignored. Companies try to take an adult device and size it down for an infant, and that’s not always how it works. Specifically, we want to eventually tap into solving the sound problem and provide data around infant sound needs.

How did your team get started?

JS: Our team met as undergrads in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia. We started working on our solution as a senior design capstone project, and then at graduation, we had to make a decision whether we wanted to give this a try and take it forward. We were able to validate at a small scale that infant light monitoring was a real problem, so we decided to take a risk and work on it for a year. We enrolled in a master’s program in product innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University as a team. That’s where we built our startup.

From there, we started raising money with a lot of bootstrapping. We began to get attention from the public and were able to find some early adopters. Getting that interest drove us to continue. Towards the end of our program, we got into the RIoT Accelerator Program, a three-month program based in Raleigh, North Carolina. That helped us understand what it means to be in an accelerator. And then shortly after that, we started at Luminate.

Kilo Medical Solutions team
(From left to right) Kashyap Venuthurupalli, Chief Business Officer; Joshnamaithili Seelam, Chief Executive Officer; and Aniket Kulkarni, Chief Technical Officer

What does it mean to you to be in Luminate, and what are your goals?

JS: We are still in the product development phase, and being in Luminate is helping us fill the gaps that we have in our business. The way the program is structured, we have two to three workshops every week where we’re learning about different aspects of business and actually working on them. That sort of educational component is something that I don’t think can be taught in a college class. All of our team members are first-time entrepreneurs — we’re doing everything for the first time, and we feel like we’re in good hands.

We come from biomedical engineering backgrounds, so we wanted to place ourselves in an area where there’s access to talent, specifically in the optics field. One of our goals is to bring in a member that can add that expertise to our team. We’re also hoping to build on the funding momentum and get to the next level when it comes to raising money. 

Joshna Seelam pitching at the 2019 Lightning Awards
Joshna Seelam pitching at the 2019 Lightning Awards

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs just starting out?

JS: I think it’s critical to go through some sort of incubator or accelerator, because it exposes you to a very fast-paced environment and gives you access to a new network. It’s going to transform you as an entrepreneur. You go in with a certain mindset and skills, and then you come out with so much more. On top of that, make sure you’re aligned with your teammates and you work well together. Lastly, you have to do some sort of customer discovery. You may think you have an idea for a solution that everyone needs, but if you don’t get out in the field and ask questions, you could be wasting your time. You need to validate your assumptions.

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PODCASTS

Think Biosolution

We caught up with Koushik Nundy, CTO of Luminate cohort I company, Think Biosolution, to give our podcast followers a closer look at his startup’s “Fitbit on steroids,” the QuasaR™. Watch the video interview to learn more about this innovation in remote patient monitoring.

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VPG Medical

We also spoke with Dr. Jean-Philippe (JP) Couderc, Founder and CEO of VPG Medical, another Luminate startup that’s innovating in the patient monitoring space. Watch the video interview with this cohort II finalist on how the HealthKam™ software monitors cardiac health through the camera in your mobile device.

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SNAPSHOT: PORTFOLIO MILESTONES

Celebrating cohort I and II company success

Congratulations to… 

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JOB OPPORTUNITIES

Want to work for a growing optics company? A number of our portfolio companies are hiring. Explore mechanical engineering, software engineering, and other job openings.

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SAVE THE DATE

Luminate Webinar on April 30

Cohort III startup teams will discuss their experience in Luminate during a webinar on Thursday, April 30. Registration will begin soon on the Photonics Media website. Sign up to get notified when registration is open.

Sign Up for the April 2020 Webinar

 

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Demo Day Tentatively Set for June 24

Demo Day 2020 is slated for Wednesday, June 24 at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. As large gatherings and public events are postponed in response to COVID-19, there is a chance that the event will shift to a virtual experience. Stay tuned — we will keep you posted as June approaches.

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See You Next Month!