From Breakthrough to Business: Two Entrepreneurs Find Their Homes as Activation Fellows at Cornell Practice Center

Dr. Alexa Schmitz ’18, co-founder and CEO of REEgen and Dr. Austin Hickman. ’21, co-founder and CEO of Soctera, has transformed their Cornell research into businesses that could transform sustainable energy infrastructure and next-generation communications, respectively. Both scientists have now transformed themselves into CEOs who can grow and sustain businesses. The Center for Entrepreneurship Development Practice and the Entrepreneurship Scholarship Program Activate, one of Cornell’s on-campus incubators, are providing the necessary support.

Schmitz and Hickman are Cohort 2022 Activate Fellows in the Activate Anywhere community, and their companies are located in the practice center. This year marks the first crossover between scholarship and Cornell’s campus incubator. Activate and Praxis share a collaborative mission designed to enable scientists to bring world-changing technologies to market.

The two-year Activate Fellowship supports early-stage science entrepreneurs from every angle: offering generous stipends, travel stipends, and health insurance; $100,000 in research funding and at least $100,000 in additional flexible capital; and mentoring, community, and intensive training .

The Practice Center is Cornell’s high-tech business-focused incubator, providing a physical base equipped with the facilities and equipment required for high-tech innovation, as well as mentoring and intrinsic links to Cornell’s research ecosystem.

Robert M. Scharf, executive academic director of the Practice Center, sees the value in matching resources. “For these young companies and their CEOs, Activate’s support along with Praxis’ incubation program is a ‘best of both worlds’ environment that greatly accelerates the commercialization of breakthrough technologies,” said Scharf.

Schmitz’s technology addresses the environmental impact of sourcing rare earth elements (REEs), which are critical to sustainable energy infrastructure. Bioengineer with Ph.D. In Plant Pathology and Plant Microbiology at Cornell University, she developed a technique for mining rare earth elements using engineered microbes, worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Buz Barstow (Cornell University Engineering), and as Cornell Energy Postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Systems Research.

“The Practice Center is a great fit for REEgen, primarily because it allows companies to remain on the Cornell campus while still maintaining intellectual property,” she said. “This, combined with the Activate Anywhere program, allows us to stay connected to the Barstow lab where the core technology was invented, where my co-founder Sean Medin is still completing his PhD. And de-risking the separation technology.”

She added, “Personally, I am grateful for the opportunity to keep the company in Ithaca, New York — a place I love and call home.”

Austin Hickman, Ph.D. from Cornell University in electrical and computer engineering, developing millimeter-wave power amplifiers based on aluminum nitride platforms for next-generation communication systems. His company Soctera aims to extend the signal range of radar and telecommunications networks.

“When it comes to transitioning from student to entrepreneurial founder, staying at your alma mater isn’t just an easy option — it’s the best option,” he said. “Cornell has a very rich history in high-frequency electronics, and I hope Soctera can add to that.”

With the formation of REEgen and Soctera, the United States is positioning itself for a new era of manufacturing, marked by the recent passage of CHIPS and the Science Act. Nurturing startups such as REEgen and Soctera is an upstream investment in the future of the semiconductor supply chain.

Scharf represents the practice center of the Semiconductor Innovation Alliance of America. “We have to re-establish the viability of the semiconductor start-up ecosystem, which has been the dynamism of many other industries in the United States.”

“Praxis supports four early-stage semiconductor startups and three new material recycling/sourcing startups that are beginning their entrepreneurial journeys,” Scharf said. “If all of these businesses are successful in the long term, the outlook for semiconductor supply chain resilience will substantially improve.”

Schmitz and Hickman were members of the first Activate Anywhere queue. The Activate Anywhere community allows fellows to work at research institutions across the United States while still being part of Activate’s tight-knit network, including resident communities in Berkeley, Boston, and New York.

“Members of the Activate Anywhere community have an incredibly strong bond with each other and with Activate members across all of our communities,” said Activate Anywhere Managing Director Hannah Murnen. “It’s amazing to see how well these buddies support each other despite the physical distance between them.”

Since 2015, Activate has supported nearly 150 science-based innovators who have founded 106 companies. Overall, Activate-backed companies have raised more than $1 billion in follow-on funding and created more than 1,100 high-tech jobs in the United States.

Activate is currently accepting applications for Cohort 2023 in its community in Berkeley, Boston, New York or anywhere. Deadline is October 31, 2022.

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