Published: Jan. 26, 2024 By

The Embark program pairs seasoned entrepreneurs with university technologies to bring those breakthroughs to market in response to urgent societal needs. The recent Embark Showcase was the pinnacle of the program’s first year working with selected entrepreneurs to provide IP rights, salary support, grant funds and investor introductions to launch startups with real-world impact. 

A dozen entrepreneurs and 10 groundbreaking innovations took center stage at the recent inaugural Embark Showcase. Attendees got an exclusive look at companies built in the last six months by the first cohort of Embark Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs). The entrepreneurs shared progress on startups spanning diverse sectors like biotechnology, quantum science, advanced materials and aerospace.

“We’re showing off the fruits of the Embark program, where they took deep tech and looked at what kind of products there could be and how these companies might have a great future fulfilling real needs,” said Marta Zgagacz, senior director at Venture Partners and co-leader of Embark.

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“I don’t know of another university that actively and directly recruits entrepreneurs to lead their laboratory startups, especially one that lets them pick the tech they want to take to market,” said Stephen Miller, co-leader of Embark and director of venture development at Venture Partners.

Every year, dozens of breakthrough inventions emerge from CU Boulder’s research labs. While some are spun out by creators themselves, others are poised to partner with entrepreneurs beyond university walls looking to launch the latest and greatest technologies. Enter Embark, which addresses the need to pair experienced entrepreneurs with promising inventions. “These were some of our top technologies that we believe could be, and should be, a startup,” said Zgagacz.

Initially, over 100 entrepreneurs applied to the Embark Deep Tech Startup Creator, the newest program by Venture Partners at CU Boulder, the university's commercialization arm. Applicants completed an intensive, two-month program including guidance on founding a company based on deep tech from a university lab, customer discovery, business development, types of funding and more. Venture Partners also worked with them to make winning matches between inventors and business minds.

After exploring a curated portfolio of 50 CU Boulder technologies, applicants pitched commercialization plans to land a six-month EIR spot, including a part-time salary for founding CEOs and up to $100,000 for technology development. Embark is made possible by grants from CU Boulder and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Next, the Venture Partners team selected the 12 EIRS and continued to guide them on resources available on campus and in the community. This first Embark cohort has been in high gear since being chosen and has risen to each challenge, said Zgagacz. “They do not rest, they take advantage of everything that we suggest to them,” she said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach, how we support our startups,” added Zgagacz. That ongoing support of entrepreneurs that Embark provides is unique to CU Boulder, said Miller. “Most institutions, once the startup is formed and ‘out the door’, are typically hands-off. We continue to support them in a multitude of ways,” he said.

What also stands out to Miller about Embark’s EIRs is that they came together early on and “had a strong commitment to each other’s success,” he said. EIR Eva Yao, founder of FLARI, agreed. “Startup creation is a team sport and deep tech commercialization is no exception,” she said. “I could not and would not be able to bring this technology to market by myself. I feel uber lucky to be embedded in a community where people are very open and generous with their time and ideas.”

With FLARI, Yao is bringing to market a breathalyzer capable of detecting molecules in breath or air samples. “My entrepreneurial antenna perked up,” she said, when first learning about the ingenious technology for rapid detection of diseases and contaminants invented by Jun Ye (Physics) and Qizhong Liang (JILA). The technology brings together two of Yao’s interests—non-invasive diagnostic products and the application of quantum technologies in biomedicine. “I believe that more accessible, non-invasive diagnostics could really save lives and lower the barrier to early and effective treatment for so many medical conditions,” she said.  

Fellow EIR, Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan, founder and CEO of PrecisionTerra, is bringing to market another potentially life-saving technology. PrecisionTerra is commercializing an algorithm created by Jade Morton, director of the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research and head of the Satellite Navigation and Sensing Laboratory in the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department.

The algorithm improves GPS signal coverage in environments like dense cities with tall buildings. That solves a big problem for mapping and autonomous vehicle industries that grapple with poor GPS signal quality in those areas, said Gopalakrishnan. “What excites me about Dr. Morton’s technology is its potential to make autonomous and driver-assist systems in vehicles safer in the future,” she said. “Improvements to any of the sensors in modern-day vehicles, including GPS sensors, can make a difference in keeping more drivers safe on the road.”

At the Embark showcase, Gopalakrishnan was looking forward “to celebrating the strides that all of us in the Embark program have made over the past several months,” she said. “Each of us overcame unique challenges throughout the process, and the showcase [is] a wonderful way to highlight our respective journeys and accomplishments.” Venture Partners’ Miller is looking forward to seeing how startup teams are shaping up, who has already raised funding through grants or venture capital, and who will have a product to market first. “I think it’s going to be close!” he said.

2023 Embark Entrepreneurs in Residence

Nate Ashton will lead Regyn Bio in bringing to market an efficient and scalable microwave-based pyrolysis system invented by Zoya Popovic (Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering).

Matthew Bauer will lead Click in bringing to market a small ear device invented by Tam Vu (Computer Science) that provides hands-free computer control that allows users to communicate by “typing” on their teeth.

David Beitz and Carl Kalin will lead BioSensor Solutions in bringing to market a biodegradable 2D printed soil sensor invented by Gregory Whiting (Mechanical Engineering) that provides real-time measurement data of soil health directly at the source in the field.

Brian Dao will lead Coaterra in bringing to market a coated and tunable stent Wei Tan (Mechanical Engineering) invented to reduce blood vessel damage and induce quick healing.

Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan will lead PrecisionTerra in bringing to market a software solution invented by Jade Morton (Aerospace) that only requires a firmware update to improve the signal strength of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers in urban environments.

T. Hingba and Jason McGowin will lead Vitawave Tech in bringing to market a wireless in-ear blood pressure measuring device that Tam Vu (Computer Science) invented for intermittent and continuous monitoring.

John Seman will lead Antibiotic Adjuvants in bringing to market new adjuvants discovered by Xiang Wang (Chemistry) for multiple drug-resistant bacteria.

Jonathan Teaford and Jon Jonis will lead Green Steel Environmental in developing sustainable additives that can revolutionize the wastewater recovery industry discovered by Mark Hernandez (Environmental Engineering).

Galen Williams will lead WHISPER Energy in bringing to market a wireless sensor platform invented by Gregor Henze (Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering) for home and commercial building energy management.

Eva Yao will lead FLARI in bringing to market a breathalyzer capable of detecting molecules in breath or air samples invented by Jun Ye (Physics) for fast detection of diseases and contaminants.