Lab Venture Challenge awards $ 900,000 to promising companies in biosciences, physical sciences and engineering | Business Partners at CU Boulder


Eleven academic innovators showcased their innovations at the Lab Venture Challenge (LVC), a fundraising competition hosted by Venture Partners at CU Boulder that helps commercially promising technologies turn into impactful business ventures. Judges from the local entrepreneurial ecosystem awarded a total of nine grants – up to $ 125,000 each – for the best innovations in the physical sciences, engineering and biosciences demonstrating high commercial potential, a clear path to an attractive market and strong scientific support.

This year LVC was held at Galvanize Boulder and was split into two categories over two days: Biosciences on November 13th and Physical Sciences and Engineering on November 14th.

The finalists delivered 10-minute presentations and walked through four minutes of question-and-answer questions from a panel of business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors and intellectual property experts. Many departments at the CU Boulder campus were represented, ranging from advertising and public relations to chemical and biological engineering.

Among the winners was Ivan Smalyukh, professor of physics and founder of iFeather, a company developing super-insulating but transparent aerogels. Smalyukh and his research team originally developed these aerogels for insulating window glass, but the company is now focusing on other market applications in greenhouses and solar thermal collectors. Not only are these aerogels energy efficient, but they can also be made from food waste, which further adds to the impact of technology on clean technologies.

“We have enjoyed attending this year’s LVC and learned things that will be very helpful in bringing our technology to market,” said Smalyukh. “Our team has a fundamental scientific and technical background, so we had many assumptions, stereotypes and gaps in understanding the steps required to form a start-up business. Participating in LVC has been extremely beneficial to our team in understanding how to start new businesses. “

Sara Sawyer, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and her research team are looking to commercialize their technology, SickStick. A saliva test for contagious diseases, SickStick is designed to “know you are sick before you do”. Right now, the only easy way to check if someone might get sick or not is with an everyday thermometer.

Sawyer hopes to test SickStick in a military field trial soon, as more soldiers are admitted to hospital for infectious diseases than for wounds and injuries sustained during battle. Infectious diseases have a particularly negative impact on workforce and productivity, and Sawyer is hoping the military can tackle that, literally, with SickStick. LVC’s funding brings Sawyer and his team closer to making these plans a reality.

To prepare for the showcase, finalists were encouraged to participate in Venture Partners’ Commercialization Academy customer discovery programs, such as Starting Blocks and Research-to-Market. CU Boulder Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR), Marketing Mentors and Venture Partners staff also provided critical feedback so finalists could refine their presentations and practice engaging different business audiences to attract funding.

“These different programs put in place by Venture Partners all help to develop a culture of entrepreneurship and provide information to academics trying to turn an innovation into a business,” said Roy Parker, professor of biochemistry and co-founder of Exocure Therapeutics.

Parker, along with his research group and co-founder Siddharth Shukla, a postdoctoral fellow, discovered that inhibition of a specific RNA processing enzyme called PARN, combined with treatment from available chemotherapy drugs commercially, resensitizes cancer cells to chemotherapy. With additional funding from LVC, Exocure will continue to identify potential compounds for drug development.

In spring 2020, all winners will enter the Research-to-Market program. Additionally, towards the end of the funding period, winners will present their progress against the LVC and work with IBOs, mentors and Venture Partners staff to chart the course for commercialization.

“Without a doubt, this is the most successful Lab Venture Challenge ever in terms of participation and the quality of the companies represented,” said Brynmor Rees, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation and Director General of Venture Partners. “While some of our researchers did not secure funding, many of them made connections with investors and members of the local startup community at the event. Building ecosystems is one of the many ways we strive to make an impact. “

LVC funding comes from the AIA program of the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade (COEDIT), Venture Partners at CU Boulder and the Chancellor’s Innovation Fund.

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