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Cornell University’s lakeside launchpad

An on-campus life sciences incubator emerges in an effort to combine science and business assets

by Rick Mullin
June 13, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 24

Credit: Shutterstock
Cornell University, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, is a science powerhouse far removed from primary centers of venture capital and entrepreneurial management.

Located on a hill above Cayuga Lake in rural Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University has distinguished itself as a locus of scientific activity stemming from its founding as the state’s land-grant college in 1865. With approximately $1 billion in research funding annually, half of it in the life sciences, Cornell ranks 14th nationally in university research, holding its own amid a coterie of science-focused institutions in urban centers such as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

The university, however, is overshadowed by its peers when it comes to generating new businesses from its science and technology. Despite its high level of scientific innovation, Cornell, with its location in the northernmost reach of Appalachia, is far removed from financial and other resources that cluster in the big coastal cities.

Indeed, Cornell appears somewhat stuck in time, lacking the entrepreneurial science culture that has evolved at many of its peer institutions over the past 20 years.

Cornell can point to a handful of start-up companies, several clustered in a business park near Ithaca’s tiny airport, that rose because of the efforts of enterprising scientists. But the university now finds itself under pressure to establish a formal infrastructure to support technology commercialization. Its trustees are anxious for a return on investment in the sciences, and the State of New York, which has poured millions of dollars into research at the university, is counting on Cornell to help revitalize the deteriorating economic landscape of upstate New York.

Efforts to mold such a support system are under way. Over the past five years, the university has won state money to start business incubators. It has worked to forge a greater connection between science and business curricula. And in 2011, it opened the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences, a $10 million business incubator.

It is a start, says Lou Walcer, director of the McGovern Center, as he discusses Cornell’s challenges—and advantages—in competing as a university research hub.

“If you walk around labs at MIT and Stanford, you see two characteristics—venture capitalists looking for the next deal and a bunch of executives who have recently exited their last venture or failed and are looking for their next gig,” says Walcer, an English major with a background in advertising and marketing at Merck & Co., Schering-Plough, and Wyeth who ran an incubator at Cleveland Clinic prior to coming to Cornell. “These are things that do not exist in Ithaca.”

But Cornell has a distinct advantage, Walcer says, in that its technology is not as picked-over as that of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. Furthermore, the university now has some experience under its belt as well as a handful of start-ups that have graduated from the incubator.

And it has Novomer, a kind of Rosetta stone for Cornell in its effort to commercialize university technology. The company, which develops catalysts that transform waste carbon dioxide into high-performance polymers, emerged from the laboratory of Geoffrey Coates, a professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology.

Back in 2002, Coates recalls, he saw two options for advancing the technology—either license it to a company that would develop it or start a company of his own. “It occurred to me that if we just waited for a large company to come along and develop our technology, it would probably never happen,” he says.

Nothing like an incubator existed at Cornell at the time, but there were dispersed resources, and Coates already had an important business connection in Tony Eisenhut, the managing director of KensaGroup, an Ithaca-based firm that specializes in licensing and commercializing technology. Coates had worked as a science adviser to KensaGroup and now would be advised in return as Eisenhut became the start-up’s finance manager.

Credit: Rick Mullin/C&EN
With a $10 million life sciences incubator on campus, Walcer hopes to build a bridge to viability for science-based start-ups at Cornell.

Novomer secured $300,000 in funding from the New York State Office of Science, Technology & Academic Research and $150,000 from the university, enabling it to hire two scientists. Coates then arranged to use basement and subbasement space at the chemistry department, which gave him access to a laboratory with high-pressure synthesis equipment.

Having essentially established its own incubation space, Novomer went on to raise $6 million in venture capital funding. Coates, who had been acting as chief science officer, departed to return to academia full-time. Novomer now has headquarters in Waltham, Mass., with a research center off campus in Ithaca.

Developed in the wake of Novomer’s experience, the McGovern Center is attempting, Walcer says, to coalesce a hub of science and business resources. The center aims to take science with commercial potential from the point of receiving initial grant funding to becoming a company that can stand on its own as a commercial entity, receive venture capital funding, or be acquired.

Meanwhile, Cornell is involved with two other start-up incubators located off campus. Tom Schryver, an economic development specialist and Cornell graduate who grew up in Ithaca, spearheaded grant proposals in 2013 that resulted in the launch of Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, an incubator based in downtown Ithaca, and the Southern Tier Startup Alliance, a network of incubators, including Rev and the McGovern Center, located across a region of the state between the Finger Lakes and the Pennsylvania border.

Family affair

Cornell’s McGovern Family Center is home to a broad range of high-tech start-ups.

Embark Veterinary DNA testing for dog health January 2016    
Ecolectro Polymers for fuel cells, electrolyzers, flow batteries & water treatment January 2016    
Lionano Nanoengineered materials for lithium-ion batteries September 2015    
Conamix Nanostructured silicon for lithium-ion batteries August 2015    
Repairogen Serum DNA skin repair cream that claims to remove skin wrinkles April 2015    
ZYMtronix Catalytic Systems Immobilized enzymes for pharmaceutical & fine chemicals manufacturing March 2015    
Ionica Sciences Surface-enhanced Raman scattering to find bacteria, viruses, parasites & food-borne pathogens February 2014    
Sterifre Medical Nonthermal plasma for sterilization, decontamination & air pollution control September 2013    
Agronomic Technology Software for managing agriculture productivity & environmental impact February 2014 January 2015 Success. Located in New York City
ArcScan Very high frequency ultrasound arc scanning for ophthalmology November 2013 May 2015 Success. Located in Golden, Colo.
Seraph Robotics 3-D printing & rapid manufacturing October 2013 January 2016 Withdrawn
Glycobia Glycoengineering of bacteria that produce novel biotherapeutics June 2012 August 2015 Terminated
Dnano Systems 3-D DNA dendrimers for use in life sciences applications March 2012 April 2013 Terminated
Source: Source: Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences

In addition to its desire to commercialize university technology, Cornell is also committed to economic development in the state as traditional employers such as Eastman Kodak wane. “Rather than fight to make a Carrier or a Kodak stay,” Schryver says, “you want to find the next Carrier or Kodak.”

Robert A. Buhrman, senior vice provost for research at Cornell, says the university is gaining recognition for its early efforts at fostering start-up science companies. He is concerned, however, that nothing is keeping start-ups in Ithaca or even in the state. Novomer, for example, moved its headquarters, as have two successful McGovern Center graduates.

That poses a dilemma given that much of the research done at Cornell is state-funded and taxpayers are looking for a return in the form of jobs in New York. “What happens is that new companies move out because the people who put money into these companies want them nearby,” he says. “So it will be a hard slog to create the Silicon Finger Lakes. I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime.”

Regardless of where it is based, Novomer, Buhrman says, does mark a success for Cornell. “But there will be others who will do even better, I’m sure,” he adds. “There is an enzyme company at the McGovern Center with very good prospects.”

That company, ZYMtronix Catalytic Systems, has developed technology for immobilizing enzymes used in biocatalysis. It recently announced a partnership with Almac, a major pharmaceutical chemicals manufacturer, and it has done work for Codexis, a biocatalysis pioneer.

Stéphane Corgié, ZYMtronix’s chief executive officer, describes the company, which is based on two Cornell patents, as cross-disciplinary. “We have nanotechnology; we have biotechnology; we have chemical engineering,” he says. “Our goal is to organize a system of enzymes so that we can help our clients do better biocatalysis.” The firm initially targeted biofuels and water remediation but shifted its focus to active pharmaceutical ingredients, a faster-growing market with more complex biocatalysis needs.

Corgié, who came to Cornell as a postdoc, says he was encouraged to start a company in 2011 by Alice Li, who managed the portfolio that included ZYMtronix’s technology at Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing. Li, now executive director of the center, pushed Corgié to enroll in classes on entrepreneurship at Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. There he teamed with the company’s finance manager, and the two landed a National Science Foundation grant of $150,000.

After entering the McGovern Center in 2014, the company went through a round of financing that brought in $590,000. In addition, the company has received a total of $1.25 million in state and federal grants.

Last year, ZYMtronix hired Joseph Marasco, a fine chemicals industry veteran who had recently sold a genomics start-up, as chief business officer. The company currently has six employees and four student interns. It recently launched a sister company called Uma Bioseed that coats seeds for protection against fungi and bacteria.

Currently, ZYMtronix is one of eight tenants at the McGovern Center, which has seen five of its original tenants exit. Of those five, two continue to thrive.

ArcScan, a developer of very high frequency ultrasound arc-scanner technology for ophthalmologic applications, has taken in $3.1 million in angel investment funding; moved to Golden, Colo.; and became publicly traded last year. Agronomic Technology, an information technology company focused on agriculture, moved to New York City with $2.25 million in funding.

Despite the center’s intention of fostering life sciences firms, half of the current tenants are working in other areas, such as battery materials. One of these, Conamix, is led by the former president of Novomer, Charles Hamilton, who left the polymers start-up when it moved to Massachusetts.

As a support engine gains traction at Cornell, the emerging entrepreneurs say they are thinking about next steps.

Walcer is working on placing a Cornell-affiliated biomedical incubator in New York City in close proximity to the research hospitals on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, including Weill Cornell Medical Center. Corgié, on the other hand, would like to see further development in Ithaca.

“I would love to see some kind of postincubator close to the campus,” he says. “A technology park would be a very good idea because we have all these faculty and infrastructure and resources.”  

Upping support for materials science entrepreneurs

Cornell University may only be getting started with business incubation on campus, but it has a 50-year track record of contracting with industry in materials science research. Although they are located in rural upstate New York, the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) and the Cornell NanoScale Science & Technology Facility (CNF) claim to have plenty of traffic from businesses around the world.

In recent years, CCMR and CNF, both funded by the National Science Foundation, also have stepped up efforts to support the commercialization of university science.

“Commercialization used to be a dirty word at NSF,” says Donald M. Tennant, director of operations at CNF, “but that is changing completely because of the nature of what we do. People here are making things. The result is that there is a personal drive among faculty to commercialize technology.” CNF has averaged about 1.5 start-ups annually over the past 10 years, he says.

Jonathan Shu, associate director of CCMR, says the materials research center has been stepping up support for start-ups as well. This is partly through a program called JumpStart, in which regional companies—start-up or established—access CCMR facilities and equipment. ZYMtronix Catalytic Systems, a tenant at Cornell’s Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences, has availed itself of JumpStart.

“There are a lot of amazing success stories coming from the program,” Shu says. “Like Corso’s Cookies.” The company, based in Syracuse, worked at CCMR on a recipe for icing that dries in three hours as opposed to the three days required with its original recipe.

Much bigger names have come to CCMR for general contract work, among them Xerox, Corning, Michelin, and Samsung. The center is currently working with a Lansing, N.Y.-based engineering firm, Advanced Design Consulting, that has a contract with the Navy to develop a nonconductive cable for rescue missions. The company was started by a Cornell engineering and business school graduate, Alexander Deyhim, 15 years ago.

Deyhim says he started the company while still at Cornell, accessing the necessary resources on his own. He attests to a more concerted effort at the engineering school, as well as at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, to support start-ups.

Tennant agrees. “There is a new synergy,” he says. “It used to be left up to the individual faculty member or researcher to figure out how to develop a company.” He says university resources are targeting a “huge gulf” between developing a prototype and gaining interest from a serious investor in the technology, noting that the McGovern Center is focused on bridging that gap.

“The McGovern is meant to be strictly life sciences, which is a start,” he says. “I would love to see a physical sciences incubator come along.”



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