Published: Nov. 19, 2019 By

Eleven university innovators pitched their innovations at Lab Venture Challenge (LVC), a funding competition hosted by Venture Partners at CU Boulder that helps commercially-promising technologies accelerate into impactful business ventures. Judges from the local entrepreneurial ecosystem awarded a total of nine grants—up to $125,000 each—for the top physical science, engineering and bioscience innovations demonstrating high commercial potential, a clear path to a compelling market and strong scientific support.

This year, LVC took place at Galvanize Boulder and was split into two categories over two days: Biosciences on Nov. 13 and Physical Sciences & Engineering on Nov. 14. 

Finalists delivered 10-minute pitches and navigated four minutes of Q&A from a panel of business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors and intellectual property experts. Numerous departments across the CU Boulder campus were represented, ranging from advertising and public relations to chemical and biological engineering.

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

"We enjoyed competing in this year's LVC and learned things that will be very useful in translating our technology to market," said Smalyukh. "Our team has fundamental science and technical backgrounds, so we had many assumptions, stereotypes and gaps in understanding the steps needed to form a startup company. Participating in LVC was extremely beneficial for our team in understanding new venture creation."

Sara Sawyer, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and her research team are looking to bring their technnology, SickStick, to market. A saliva test for contagious disease, SickStick is designed to "know you're sick before you do." Currently, the only easy way to monitor whether or not someone might be getting sick is an everyday thermometer.

Sawyer hopes to soon be testing SickStick in a military field trial, as more soldiers are admitted to the hospital for infectious disease than for injuries and wounds sustained during battle. Infectious disease has a particularly negative impact on workforce and productivity, and Sawyer hopes that the military can combat this—quite literally—combat this with SickStick. The funding from LVC brings Sawyer and her team one step closer to bringing those plans to fruition.

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 Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIRs), commercialization mentors and Venture Partners staff also provided critical feedback so finalists could refine their presentations and practice engaging different business audiences in order to attract funding.

"These different programs put on by Venture Partners all help to develop a culture of entrepreneurship and provide insight for academics who are trying to transition an innovation into a company," said Roy Parker, biochemistry professor and co-founder of Exocure Therapeutics.

Parker—along with his research group and co-founder Siddharth Shukla, a postdoctoral fellow—found that inhibiting a specific RNA processing enzyme called PARN, combined with treatment from commercially available chemotherapy drugs, re-sensitizes cancer cells to chemotherapy. With additional funding from LVC, Exocure will continue to identify possible lead compounds for drug development.

In the spring of 2020, all of the awardees will enter the Research-to-Market program. In addition, toward the end of the funding period, awardees will present their progress from the LVC and collaborate with EIRs, mentors and Venture Partners staff to set the commercialization path forward.

“Without a doubt, this was the most successful Lab Venture Challenge ever in terms of attendance and the quality of ventures represented," said Brynmor Rees, assistant vice chancellor for Research & Innovation and managing director of Venture Partners. "Although some of our researchers didn't win funding, many of them formed connections with investors and local startup community members at the event. Ecosystem building is one of the many ways we strive to make an impact."

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