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, accordingly, next-generation communications. Both scientists are now transforming into CEOs capable of developing and sustaining businesses. The Praxis Center for Venture Development, one of Cornell’s incubators, and Activate, an entrepreneurial scholarship program, provide substantial support.
Schmitz and Hickman are Cohort 2022 Activate Fellows in the Activate Anywhere Community, and both of their companies are based in the Praxis Center. This year marks the first crossover between the fellowship and the Cornell campus incubator. Activate and Praxis share synergistic missions designed to enable scientists to bring their world-changing technologies to market.
The two-year Activate Fellowship supports budding science entrepreneurs from all angles: it provides a generous stipend, travel assistance 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, Activate’s support along with the incubation program at Praxis is a ‘best of both worlds’ environment that greatly accelerates the commercialization of innovative technologies,” Scharf said.
Schmitz’s technology addresses the environmental impact of sourcing rare earth elements (REEs), which are critical for sustainable energy infrastructure. A biological engineer with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbial Biology from Cornell, she developed a rare earth bioharvesting technology using engineered microbes as a postdoctoral research associate working with Buzz 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 remain on the Cornell campus while retaining intellectual property rights,” she said. “This, combined with the Activate Anywhere program, allows us to remain connected to the Barstow Lab, where the core technologies were invented and where Sean Medin, my co-founder, is still completing his Ph.D. and de-risking separation technology.’
She added, “On a personal level, I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep my 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 communications systems. His company, Soctera, aims to extend the signal range of radar and telecommunications 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 choice,” 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 in manufacturing, marked by the recent passage of the CHIPS and Science Act. Fueling startups like REEgen and Soctera is an upstream investment in the future of semiconductor supply chains.
Scharf represents the Praxis Center at the American Semiconductor Innovation Coalition. “It is essential that we restore the viability of the semiconductor startup ecosystem, as it is the lifeblood of so many other industries in the US.”
“Praxis supports four early-stage semiconductor startups and three new recycling/materials sourcing startups starting their entrepreneurial journeys,” Scharf said. “If all of these endeavors are successful in the long term, it will significantly improve the outlook for semiconductor supply chain sustainability.”
Schmitz and Hickman are part of the first Activate Anywhere cohort. The Activate Anywhere community allows fellows to be based in research centers across the United States – while being part of Activate’s close-knit network that includes local communities in Berkeley, Boston and New York.
“Fellows in the Activate Anywhere community have incredibly strong connections with each other and with Activate collaborators across all of our communities,” said Hannah Murnen, Managing Director of Activate Anywhere. “It was fantastic to see how much friends 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, companies supported by Activate 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 communities in Berkeley, Boston, New York or anywhere. The deadline is October 31, 2022.