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On January 31st, the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) at Cornell University hosted the first “Ignite Connect 2024: Accelerating Impact” virtual event, which presented the latest technologies, new ventures, and recent startups arising from the Cornell labs and recipients of Ignite gap funding awards. The conference convened more than 150 investors, entrepreneurs, industry partners, and Cornell alums, among others, interested in forging long-lasting partnerships. This gathering serves as a testament to Cornell’s collective support in technology development and new venture development and startup growth. The event was structured into three distinct sections: 

  • A general forum highlighted the impact of past successful Ignite recipients; 
  • Pitch sessions across five unique tracks provided a platform for funded projects, their progress, and requirements to achieve key milestones; 
  • A networking segment aimed to foster connections between Ignite recipients and attendees, over 65% of whom were alumni, industry experts and investors. 

“Today, we gather to forge new connections between these promising opportunities with a community as vibrant and diverse as our endeavors,” said Alice Li, executive director of CTL, during her welcome address. “A community of passionate investors, visionary entrepreneurs, collaborative industry partners, and our dedicated Cornell alumni reflected on the progress we’ve made.”  

Li emphasized the importance of the program to bridge the gap and increase innovation. She expressed gratitude towards the committee members and technology advisors for their time, dedication, and expertise. These individuals, comprising industry and investment experts, played a pivotal role in reviewing, advising, and selecting the numerous applicants for the program series. “Your contributions are the backbone of our success, and I extend my deepest appreciation for your unwavering support,” Li concluded.  

The forum transitioned to the opening remarks by Krystyn Van Vliet, Ph.D., VP for Research and Innovation at Cornell. “CTL is part of a larger team that’s extremely passionate about helping our students, staff, and faculty take their ideas, innovations, and ventures to impact,” she said. “And it takes so much more than a village to be able to do that.”  

After a year as the leader of this ecosystem, Professor Van Vliet emphasized the importance of the gap funding and the programs that comprise the Ignite umbrella but also the importance of investing in people, their technologies, and new connections to make the most of Cornell’s focus on the Greatest Good.   

Cornell’s diverse Research & Innovation ecosystem focuses on solving the most immediate to the most complex societal problems and moving them into translation to impact the market. “That’s what innovations are about,” Van Vliet emphasized. “Whether it is a new computational technology or a new process that reduces the environmental impact on things that we all need so that it will thrive on earth.”   

Carbon to Stone’s journey to market impact  

Following Professor Van Vliet’s welcoming remarks, Peggy Koenig ‘78, chair of Executive Committee Cornell Board of Trustees and chair emeritus of ABRY Partners, took the stage. She introduced Greeshma Gadikota, Ph.D., associate professor, Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow at the College of Engineering. Gadikota is also co-founder of Cornell startup Carbon to Stone (CTS), a venture that collaborates with various industries to transform CO2 and residual materials into usable resources. The conversation centered on the company, the support provided by Cornell for her intellectual property (IP) and her new venture, and the growth plans for CTS.  

As a Cornell alum, Koenig has been a great supporter of the innovation initiatives at CTL. In fiscal year 2022, the Ignite available funding increased to $3 million thanks to financial support from the provost’s office and a $1 million gift from Koenig. Her donation has helped in awarding more lab application projects leading to insightful impact. Nearly 50% of the completed awarded Innovation Acceleration projects have led to a license agreement or a license option. 

During their conversation, Dr. Gadikota shared her experience as a faculty-researcher turned innovator and entrepreneur. She emphasized the significance of CTL and the Ignite gap funding she received. “I wouldn’t be here without the support of Cornell Technology Licensing office,” she said.   

Her intellectual property journey started when she disclosed her innovation to CTL. Dr. Gadikota speaks from experience and advises having a robust dialogue with the business development team, particularly when it comes to patenting—understanding the uniqueness of a patent, crafting claims effectively, and co-creating a strategy that benefits all parties involved. On the licensing front, choosing the right approach is equally important for mutual success.  

Leveraging the resources provided by the Fellow for New Ventures program managed by CTL, Hassnain Asgar, a former postdoc from Dr. GadiKota’s lab, underwent training, de-risked the technology in the lab, and worked with Robert Scharf, incubator director at Praxis. 

“Being granted this fellowship meant a substantial year-long funding boost,” she mentions. 

Professor Gadikota and Asgar co-founded the company and began applying for SBIR grants. Upon graduating from the program, Asgar and the newly appointed CEO were able to operate the company. As a result, CTS secured half a million dollars through a carbon removal pre-purchase from Frontier Strike Climate. “Those are the two catalytic moments that really helped in advancing our technology,” she remarked. Moreover, the company received additional federal grants, including $256,500 from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2023.   

Despite their current success, Dr. Gadikota’s initial doubts led the team to undertake comprehensive research, engaging in numerous interviews and drafting grants to gauge market interest. These efforts paved the way for industry recognition and fruitful partnerships.   

“Balancing life between academia and entrepreneurship is challenging, but I approach it from an academic lens, with a perspective of learning,” Greeshma states. She further explains the dynamic interplay between her roles: “We might have a solution, but the question remains – how will it scale? Or, we have a scalable solution, yet we require deeper fundamental knowledge. I found that loop of knowledge creation to be particularly satisfying,” she notes, emphasizing that this cycle is a source of continuous learning. 

Looking ahead, CTS’s growth plan falls in its distinctive strategy of enabling industrial decarbonization. The goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of key commodity products, integrating economic and environmental benefits across the supply chain, leveraging renewable energy, and considering emissions and materials management.  

In her final remarks, Dr. Gadikota offered guidance to emerging faculty and student entrepreneurs on transforming research into marketable products. She urged them to seek the right fit with partners and customers rather than rushing into commitments. “The initial team is pivotal in determining a company’s direction and growth, underlining the significance of deliberate consideration in hiring to ensure alignment with the company’s vision and individual growth,” she concluded.  

Pitching and connecting impactful innovations across disciplines  

Furthering the event’s mission to catalyze impact, the forum branched out into five thematic breakout rooms, focusing on pitches from Ignite’s awardees from the Innovation Acceleration, Ignite Startup, and Fellow for New Ventures programs. A total of 26 presenters from an array of sectors such as Therapeutics and Vaccines, Diagnostics and Biotech Tools, MedTech and Digital Health, Materials and Energy, and High Tech and Hardware pitched their innovations or companies to potential funders and investors.    

As the event concluded, attendees had the opportunity to network, connect, and nurture potential collaborations and partnerships. This segment led to 15 connections which will hopefully lead to meaningful outcomes.  

CTL’s Business Development & Licensing team, the Bioventure elab at Weill Cornell, the Praxis Center for Venture Development, and the Cornell Tech Runway program held virtual booths garnering attendees’ interest while sharing the various support from the Cornell Innovation Ecosystem fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. 

The Cornell community was left inspired and motivated, reflecting on the potential for greater achievements and impact through collaboration, innovation, and a shared vision from Professor Gadikota for a sustainable future. For more information about the Ignite program, visit CTL’s website here   

Written by: Yingzi(Catherine) Lin