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Moving Beyond the Lab Bench

FedTech program helps EGSB researchers move their technology forward.


The original article appeared on Lawrence Berkeley Lab's website on January 30, 2019:

Peter Andeer (Marilyn Chung, Berkeley Lab)

When researchers report developing a more efficient solar cell, or a technique that improves drug delivery, one of the inevitable follow-up questions they face is, “When will this be available to consumers?” In recent years, attempts to bridge the distance from lab bench to market have been promoted for researchers committed to seeing their work be applied to real world situations at universities, national laboratories and other institutions.

One such program is FedTech, launched in 2013 as part of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. The private venture program pairs researchers from federal agencies, universities and national laboratories with entrepreneurs interested in their ideas. The teams learn about the processes of launching a start-up, developing a business model, and identifying a target market.

Trent Northen and Peter Andeer, scientists in the Biosciences Area’s Environmental Genomics & Systems Biology (EGSB) Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), were part of the Fall 2018 cohort of FedTech Start-Up Studio, which culminated with a Pitch Day in late November. With entrepreneurs Rick Kjellberg and Jayan Rammohan, they were among 20 teams that participated in the eight-week program. Their team was sponsored by MD5.

“It seemed like a perfect fit given that this program was specifically designed to pair inventors at national labs with entrepreneurs who will evaluate the commercial viability of our technologies,” said Northen.

In a FedTech release about Pitch Day, Ben Solomon, FedTech’s Founder and Managing Partner, noted that the Fall cohort “had a record number of applicants, both on the technology and entrepreneur side.”

“From an entrepreneurial perspective, Jayan and I are grateful for being connected to highly respected inventors from a well-renowned lab,” said Rick Kjellberg, a finance and operations consultant in San Francisco, Calif. and a cleantech entrepreneur who was part of the EcoFAB team at FedTech. “We share personal and professional interest in the inventors’ underlying technology and the potential it holds for enabling innovation in agriculture and plant health. We also share in the inventors’ excitement about the technology’s commercial potential. Furthermore, FedTech provided formal mentorship, training, and other resources to help us take guided steps in the customer discovery process and beyond.”

The Northen Lab has been developing fabricated ecosystem devices known as EcoFABs to study microbial communities. These laboratory-scale controlled habitats, constructed using widely available 3D printing technologies, allow researchers to conduct standardized and reproducible studies of plant-microbe interactions under controlled environmental conditions. “We now have several projects and many collaborators who need EcoFABs,” added Andeer.

Jayan Rammohan, one of the two entrepreneurs who partnered with the EcoFAB team, said the decision to work with the researchers was easy. “I am an engineer and a biologist, so I have a natural affinity for tools than enable innovative, reproducible and high-impact research in the life sciences,” he said. “Given the potential of agriculture technology to impact food supply, food security, bioenergy, and many other applications, EcoFAB was an obvious choice.”

“The soil microbiome is a critical area in which agriculture innovators seek ways to improve plant health. We envision two distinct markets,” Kjellberg added. “First, academic researchers can deploy EcoFABs to answer myriad questions related to plant-microbe interactions. Second, agriculture industry researchers are looking for ways to develop cost-effective, organic products farmers can use to increase yield. They can use EcoFABs to develop rapid, in vitro assays that help them prioritize costly greenhouse and field experiments – potentially saving time and money in their product development lifecycles.”

The EcoFAB team has been accepted into the FedTech Pre-Acceleratorprogram, which supports start-ups following their participation in the Start-Up Studio program. “Pete and I have been extremely impressed by Rick and Jayan and what all they have accomplished in such a short period,” he said. “We hope they are successful because we’d much rather spend our time using EcoFABs for our research than making them!”

Biosciences researchers interested in participating in a customer discovery or entrepreneurship program like FedTech should contact Robin Johnston, Biosciences Strategic Industry Engagements and Entrepreneurship Lead.

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