Ask Dana Anderson, professor of physics at CU Boulder and founder of Infleqtion, a quantum-technology startup, what role the university played in getting his company off the ground, and he doesn’t mince words.
“They didn’t get in my way,” said Anderson, who launched Infleqtion under the name ColdQuanta in 2007.
Unlike many universities, said Anderson, CU Boulder views “getting technology out the door” as part of its mission. So while Venture Partners, CU Boulder’s commercialization arm, did not yet exist and the university could not offer Anderson the wealth of resources it now makes available to aspiring founders, the university smoothed out his path.
The Technology Transfer Office (TTO), as it was then known, helped Anderson draw up a conflict management plan. When he needed lab space to work on his quantum devices — Infleqtion leverages Anderson’s research into the quantum properties of atoms to develop everything from atomic clocks to quantum sensors and computers — CU worked out a facilities use agreement with him. And when the company was in danger of going under, the university gave him the time he needed to pull it back from the brink.
Infleqtion’s technology can now be found in orbit aboard the International Space Station and in labs around the world. The company employs more than 200 people, has raised nearly $200 million and is preparing to sell atomic clocks and quantum sensors at a commercial scale — all because CU was willing to invest in a scientist who, as he admitted, was “not a business guy.”
“I’m very, very grateful for that,” Anderson said.
He is not alone. According to the latest report from the Association of University Technology Managers, which assessed startup creation by universities in 2021, CU ranked fifth nationwide, ahead of Stanford and MIT. CU Boulder produced 20 startups that year and has spun out 179 companies to date. The pace of startup formation is surging, having nearly doubled in recent years.
That increase is no accident. When Anderson formed his company, the TTO was focused on filing and licensing patents. While protecting intellectual property (IP) remains crucial to launching companies based on scientific and technological innovations, CU Boulder now takes a more holistic approach to helping researchers successfully lead such “deep-tech” startups.
“Venture Partners spends the majority of its resources and energy developing and growing innovators: teaching folks entrepreneurial skill sets, partnering with investors, running startup accelerators and other programs,” said Bryn Rees, associate vice chancellor for research and innovation and managing director of Venture Partners.
The principal goal is to translate discoveries by CU Boulder researchers into products and services that benefit society while contributing to local, state and national economies. But maintaining a strong startup ecosystem confers other advantages as well, like expanding research funding opportunities and attracting innovative faculty and students.
Venture Partners, which launched in 2019, has developed a suite of programs designed to shepherd researchers through the process of founding a startup, from licensing patents and identifying markets to courting investors. Aspiring founders are free to pick and choose among them; but many, like Camila Uzcategui (MMatSci’18; PhD’21) and Johnny Hergert (MMatSci’18; PhD’21), co-founders of the biomedical startup Vitro3D, follow the entire sequence.
As soon as they realized the rapid 3D-printing technology they developed as PhD students in the laboratory of materials scientist Robert McLeod had potential commercial applications, Uzcategui and Hergert disclosed their invention to the university. By 2020 the two were in discussions with Venture Partners, which helped them secure exclusive licensing for a variety of patents from the McLeod lab.
A slow, difficult or expensive licensing process can stymie a budding entrepreneur and make it harder to attract funding. But Venture Partners’ Licensing with EASE program offers quick pre-negotiated terms that are attractive to founders and investors alike.
“With these licensing terms, you can go out and talk to venture capitalists and raise money,” Uzcategui said.
Uzcategui and Hergert quickly enrolled in Venture Partners programs — funded in part by NSF — such as Starting Blocks and Research-to-Market, which help founders identify markets for their inventions. They originally envisioned using their 3D-printing technology to aid drug discovery, but after speaking with potential customers, they shifted to producing dental aligners instead.
The opportunities kept coming. The pair enrolled in the New Venture Launch class, which offers mentoring and pitch coaching from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists; won $125,000 in the Lab Venture Challenge (LVC) pitch competition and another $30,000 in the New Venture Challenge (NVC); and participated in the Ascent Deep Tech Accelerator.
“We kind of never stopped,” Uzcategui said.
Vitro3D then attracted $1.3 million in seed financing with Buff Gold Ventures, a venture capital fund co-created by Venture Partners that invests exclusively in CU Boulder startups.
The CU Boulder ecosystem played a similarly important role for Nick Meyerson, cofounder and CEO of the diagnostic testing startup Darwin Biosciences.
As a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of CU Boulder virologist Sara Sawyer, Meyerson discovered a novel means of analyzing a person’s saliva to determine whether they were carrying an infectious disease even before they developed symptoms. The Department of Defense (DoD), which funded the research, suggested he form a company to develop a handheld diagnostic device. Meyerson went to Rees and Venture Partners for advice. After submitting a patent application, Meyerson began taking Venture Partner workshops and entering pitch competitions, and in March 2020, Darwin Biosciences was born.
Because of his existing relationship with the DoD — and also because he used his technology to develop one of the nation’s first rapid saliva-based COVID-19 tests — Meyerson didn’t need accelerator support or help figuring out who his potential customers were.
But CU Boulder was still there for him. When the pandemic hit, the university gave Meyerson lab space to develop his COVID test. It also introduced him to Boulder’s rich network of experienced entrepreneurs and investors: Meyerson met his first CEO at the Lab Venture Challenge and his current director of operations through Venture Partners.
“Most of the heavy hitters that I know in the area are because of connections that I’ve made through [Venture Partners],” said Meyerson.
Darwin Biosciences is now on the verge of entering the commercial market. The company is developing a phase-two prototype of its testing device and pursuing FDA approval with the goal of developing a diagnostic platform that can be used for everything from at-home infectious disease testing to early cancer screening.
“This is something that other universities really have not done”
The purpose of all these support structures is to help as many CU innovators as possible unlock the social and economic benefits of their discoveries. And as Vitro3D and Darwin Biosciences illustrate, the system is working.
But not every researcher wants to found their own company, which helps explain why many of the approximately 150 promising inventions produced at CU Boulder every year never make it to market.
Venture Partners therefore established the Embark Deep Tech Startup Creator, funded by CU Boulder and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, which gives outside entrepreneurs the opportunity to form startups around university-owned technology. Ten startups launched this past August, and each company enjoys access to CU’s startup programs and up to $100,000 for technology development.
“This is something that other universities really have not done,” said Rees, who believes that Embark will fuel more growth for CU as a startup hub. “We’re trying to craft a new model.”