As the deep tech startup scene rapidly grows, the Ascent Deep Tech Accelerator, created by Venture Partners at CU Boulder, helps founders move past sticking points to hit critical milestones in transitioning their technologies from lab to marketplace.
Deep tech innovations spun out of university and federal labs face unique challenges because they disrupt current technologies and take more time and money to develop, according to Emily Vogt, director of venture development at Venture Partners and co-lead of Ascent. “We understand that certain innovations in science and engineering are by nature game-changing technologies, but face challenging paths to market, require intensive research and development and have significant capital requirements on their path to success,” she said.
Enter Ascent, created by Venture Partners and partially funded by a grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), available to researchers at the University of Colorado campuses in Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs or in-state federal labs. Venture Partners added the program to its complement of entrepreneurial training programs in 2021 specifically to help innovators push past points of friction and tap into the many potential economic and social rewards of breakthrough technologies, said Vogt.
In the two years Ascent has been up and running, CU Boulder has spun out 32 deep tech startups. Through targeted programming during Ascent, experts have helped 19 teams looking to transition their research into companies with real-world impacts. Take this year’s cohort, whose innovations span a broad range of disciplines in the physical and life sciences—from cleantech and quantum computing to advanced therapeutics. “We’ve got so many exciting teams here working to make our future better in so many different ways,” said Nicole Forsberg, business development executive with Venture Partners and Ascent co-lead.
Building a foundation
Venture Partners designed Ascent to link early-stage companies with experts, mentors and program staff who take founders through four modules: company formation, paths to market, entrepreneurial finance and fundraising. “The goal is to lay out the resources, to give them a foundation, even if it’s just to start understanding what kinds of questions to ask in forming a startup,” said Vogt.
That’s been critical for founders like Krister Shalm (Physics; Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering), co-founder of Twine with Jasper Palfree (Physics), a next-generation data integrity and security platform company based on a peer-to-peer network of blockchains. “Being an entrepreneur is all very new to me… and there’s a lot of things I don’t know, but there’s even more things I didn’t know that I don’t know. Ascent has really helped with a lot of that,” said Shalm, a senior research associate in NIST’s Quantum Nanophotonics Group. In addition to being in Ascent’s 2023 cohort, Twine was one of the winners of Venture Partners’ 2022 Lab Venture Challenge.
To qualify for Ascent, teams must have submitted an invention disclosure to Venture Partners and completed customer discovery in their target market, such as through the I-CorpsTM Research-to-Market programs. Cohort members commit to weekly workshops and coaching sessions over the four-month program. Founders’ agreements, team building and storytelling are just some of the many topics covered. That unique curriculum was designed with specialized tracks providing domain-specific content that aligns with individual company needs.
Light touch, big impact
Ascent may sound intense but, said Vogt, “It’s intentionally a light touch program. The goal is to work with researchers that are still running their labs, still studying towards their advanced degrees, while giving them a business foundation that they can build upon when they are ready.”
That approach has worked well for founders in this year’s cohort, like Brandon Regensburger and Khurram Afridi, who spun out ExoPower from Afridi’s power electronics lab at CU Boulder. At the time, Afridi was an assistant professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, and Regensburger was his student.
ExoPower makes novel, in-motion capacitive wireless charging systems for electric vehicles and material-handling vehicles (like those found in huge Amazon warehouses), which allow ‘in-use’ charging, increasing workforce productivity and battery life while reducing battery size.
What ExoPower’s founders found most valuable with Ascent was that it helped them navigate the infamous “valley of death” moments of uncertainty that befall many deep tech startups. That’s when an idea is promising, but the technology is not yet a working product, or it has yet to be scaled up for entry into the market—but the venture needs guidance and investment to make it happen. “We had weekly classes, and they assigned me a venture capitalist advisor who’s been amazing in helping me really develop my pitch,” he said. “I’m in a completely different world from where I was several months ago,” said Regensburger.
Teams wrap up their experience with the Ascent Investor Showcase, a capstone event aimed at helping founders to gain investment and partnership traction with brief business pitches to a community of investors, entrepreneurs and industry experts. “We invite investors from near and far to listen to the company pitches and hopefully do some matchmaking,” said Forsberg.
At this year’s May showcase, the six-team cohort presented their innovations to 90 attendees. “This culmination, this showcase event, is such an exciting opportunity for us and for all of you to see what the next phase of impactful companies are doing, coming out of university research and labs,” Vogt told the group. “I really trust that all of these companies are going to be big names for our state, for our university, for you all as investors,” she said.