If you’re pitching a new software startup, you go to Sand Hill Road. If you’re pitching a hard science startup in a field like energy or manufacturing, though, Ilan Gur suggests that you make your way to Cyclotron Road.
“There’s just something really broken in our innovation ecosystem here in the U.S.,” said Gur, founder and director of the early-stage Berkeley tech incubator Cyclotron Road. “We don’t give these innovators enough money to go build their technologies.”
Named after the street that leads to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the three-year-old Department of Energy-backed incubator offers free access to millions of dollars’ worth of equipment at the federal lab, plus research staff and mentoring for technical founders in need of time and space for complex R&D. An initial class of six aspiring entrepreneurs focused on advanced materials, alternative energy and more graduated in 2016 with a total $10 million in grant funding, plus additional public and private support for some.
The small class sizes, extended two-year rotation cycle and modest outright funding (at least on the Silicon Valley scale) set Cyclotron Road apart from other incubators and accelerators. That’s by design, since the program’s goal is to attract technical experts already working in academia, corporate labs or government but in need of a way to survive the long road from technological discovery to product commercialization.
“It’s meant to bridge that valley of death,” said Peter Frischmann, co-founder of battery startup Sepion Technologies, which started in Cyclotron’s second class last spring. “(Otherwise) we would have to go out to a VC and try to raise $5 million, then use half of it for equipment and a building.”
Gur, an entrepreneur who holds PhD degrees in materials science and engineering, conceived of the program after overseeing a $50 million portfolio at the Department of Energy’s experimental Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) division. His goal: to create an avenue into the startup world by “spinning in” promising talent, consolidating a small group of entrepreneurs in one place, as opposed to the usual model of spinning one-off ventures out of lab settings.
Though business models are secondary to science, at least at first, Gur said not all technical founders fit into the venture capital mold at any stage. In addition to ongoing government grant and contract work, he said licensing deals with big companies are also promising.
Frischmann, for instance, is already reaching out to automakers and airlines interested in electrification — an issue that underscores Cyclotron Road’s overall challenge of squaring a mission focused on clean tech with a new Trump Administration already rolling back environmental efforts across the board.
Federal budget cuts in any area tend to take at least one-to-two years to trickle down to local programs, and Gur said Cyclotron Road could also make a case for backing from state officials in California, corporate sponsors or philanthropic funders.
“This is potentially a really valuable asset,” he said. “There’s a question of whether things might change, but I think we’ll continue to find support for the model.”