From breakthrough to business: two entrepreneurs find their home as Activate Fellows at Cornell’s Praxis Center
Alexa Schmitz Ph.D ’18, co-founder and CEO of REEgen, and Austin Hickman Ph.D. ’21, co-founder and CEO of Soctera, have turned their Cornell-based research into ventures that could transform sustainable energy infrastructure and next-generation communications, respectively. Both scientists are now transforming themselves into CEOs capable of growing and sustaining a business. The Praxis Center for Venture Development, one of Cornell’s campus incubators, and Activate, an entrepreneurial fellowship program, are providing essential support.
Schmitz and Hickman are Cohort 2022 Activate Fellows in the Activate Anywhere Community, and their companies are both based at the Praxis Center. This year marks the first crossover between the fellowship and a Cornell campus incubator. Activate and Praxis share synergistic missions intended to empower scientists to bring their world-changing technologies to market.
The two-year Activate Fellowship supports early-stage science entrepreneurs from every angle: providing a generous stipend, travel allowance, and health insurance; $100,000 in research funding and access to at least $100,000 in additional flexible capital; along with mentorship, community and intensive training.
The Praxis Center, Cornell’s incubator focused on high-tech ventures, provides a physical home base with the facilities and equipment needed for high-tech innovation along with mentorship and a built-in connection to Cornell’s research ecosystem.
Robert M. Scharf, administrative academic director at the Praxis Center, sees the value in paired resources. “For these young companies and their CEOs, the support of Activate together with the incubation program at Praxis is a ‘best of both worlds’ environment that is greatly accelerating the commercialization of groundbreaking technologies,” Scharf said.
Schmitz’ technology addresses the environmental impact of sourcing rare earth elements (REE), which are critical for sustainable energy infrastructure. A biological engineer with a Ph.D. in plant pathology and plant-microbe biology from Cornell, she developed a technology for biomining rare earth elements using engineered microbes as a postdoctoral research associate working with Buz Barstow (Cornell Engineering) and as a postdoctoral fellow for the Cornell Energy Systems Institute.
“The Praxis Center is a great fit for REEgen primarily because it allows the company to stay on Cornell’s campus while still maintaining rights to intellectual property,” she said. “This, combined with the Activate Anywhere program, allows us to stay connected to the Barstow Lab where the core technologies were invented, and where Sean Medin, my co-founder, is still finishing his Ph.D. and de-risking the separations technology.”
She added, “On a personal level, I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep the company in Ithaca, New York – a place I love and call home.”
Austin Hickman, who earned his Ph.D. from Cornell in electrical and computer engineering, is developing millimeter-wave power amplifiers on an aluminum nitride platform for next-generation communication systems. His company, Soctera, aims to extend the signal range of radar and telecom networks.
“When it came time to transition from student to startup founder, staying at my alma mater wasn’t just the easy choice – it was the best one,” he said. “There is a very rich history of high frequency electronics at Cornell and I hope that Soctera can add to that.”
As REEgen and Soctera take shape, the United States is positioning itself for a new era of manufacturing, marked by the recent passage of the CHIPS and Science Act. Nurturing startups such as REEgen and Soctera is an upstream investment in the future of semiconductor supply chains. .
Scharf represents the Praxis Center on the American Semiconductor Innovation Coalition. “It is essential that we reestablish the viability of the startup ecosystem for semiconductors, since that has been the source of vitality for so many other industries in the USA.”
“Praxis supports four early-stage semiconductor startups and three new material recycling/sourcing startups that are beginning their entrepreneurial journeys,” Scharf said. “If all these ventures are successful in the long term, a material improvement in the outlook for semiconductor supply chain resilience would result.”
Schmitz and Hickman are part of the first Activate Anywhere cohort. The Activate Anywhere Community allows fellows to be based at research facilities across the United States – while still being part of Activate’s tight-knit network including in-residence communities in Berkeley, Boston, and New York.
“The fellows in the Activate Anywhere Community have incredibly strong ties to each other and to the Activate Fellows across all our communities,” said Hannah Murnen, managing director of Activate Anywhere. “It’s been fantastic to see how much the fellows support each other, despite the physical distance between them.”
Since 2015, Activate has supported nearly 150 science-based innovators, who have launched 106 companies. Collectively, Activate-supported companies have raised over $1 billion in follow-on funding and created more than 1,100 US-based high-tech jobs.
Activate is currently accepting applications for Cohort 2023 in its Berkeley, Boston, New York, or Anywhere communities. The deadline is October 31, 2022.