Sharpening skills, image at Innovation Boot Camp

Nikolai Joukov, an adjunct NYU instructor and founder of corporate-data modeler ModelizeIT: "Lots of connections and lots of help in terms of vision."
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Stony Brook University’s ninth-annual Innovation Boot Camp has decamped following an intensive series of workshops and homework assignments for eight up-and-coming startups.

The campers, early-stage – and earlier – companies based on science from LI’s growing innovation ecosystem delivered sharpened presentations at SBU’s Long Island High Technology Incubator. The 15-minute exhibitions, a dry run for potential investor pitches, were made by each team’s “idea champion” and critiqued by a panel of well-known Island commercialization experts.

Among them: Mark Lesko, the former Accelerate Long Island director now running Hofstra University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, and Steve Winick, managing director of private equity firm Topspin Partners, a longtime supporter of Long Island startups.

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Topspin Partners’ Steve Winick

Also critiquing were Brookhaven National Laboratory commercialization director Connie Cleary, Long Island Angel Network board member Samir Nizam and Jeff Saelens, SBU’s manufacturing and technology czar.

Moderator Anil Dhundale, the former director of the incubator, introduced the panel and then let the idea champions make the pitch. Each shared the idea’s technology, market potential, likely competitors, estimated investment needs and profit predictions, followed by a supportive grilling from panelists and audience members.

By surrounding big-thinking researchers and engineers with MBAs, patent attorneys, investors and other bona fide commercialization pros, the general idea was to bolster their business acumen – including their ability to woo investors.

The lesson wasn’t lost on Girish Ramakrishnan, an SBU postdoctoral associate and founder of Sustainable Nanotechnology, which aims to revolutionize nanocomposite manufacturing with stronger and safer “advanced nanocellulosic materials.”

The science is sound and the company is ready to roll, Ramakrishnan noted – but first, he needed to tune his investment pitch.

“We wanted to get enough feedback from the judges so we can improve our presentation for venture funding,” he told Innovate LI.

Even companies further along in the commercialization process can benefit from a VC-pitch brush-up. Jon Klein, cofounder and president of Smithtown-based Kantian Sciences Corp., said he was grateful for the “challenging of our ideas and thickening of our presentation,” even though his 2015 anti-acne startup already sells to consumers via Amazon.

“We came in with our presentation and our preconceived notions of what an investor looks for,” Klein noted. “We got a lot of feedback that helped us understand what investors are really looking for, and other things we should be thinking about.”

On the other end of the commercialization scale was Carol Carter, a Yale-educated researcher and molecular geneticist in SBU’s microbiology department. Carter doesn’t have a company yet, but she does have an innovative biological method for targeting “cellular factors” critical for the release of HIV-1 and other viruses responsible for acute infections like rabies and herpes, as well as various cancers.

With a chemical compound proven to bind to target cells, Carter now aims to assess the compound’s ability to inhibit virus replication in human cells with the goal of developing a first-in-class inhibitor.

It sounds like – and is – a massive amount of lab work, leaving the doctor little time to build her business skills and making the boot camp a critical advantage.

“It’s given me an education of a type I’ve not gotten before, in all of my training,” Carter noted. “As an academician, you don’t usually get this kind of perspective on what you do.”

Like Carter, Judy Wieber, CEO of DNAshare, came to the camp with more of an idea than an enterprise; her team actually came up with “DNAshare” during the workshops.

She knows what kind of company she’d like to be. The entrepreneur likens her proposed, subscription-based biological database to “the Netflix of genomic data and biological samples.”

But the mobile-technology expert and former Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory grant writer recognizes a long road between here and there.

“We’re very early stage,” she said. “We really wanted to crystalize the idea and get some of the important parameters down, to see if this massive database that researchers in pharma and academic research can use on a subscription basis could actually be feasible.”

Also yet to launch: MEAn Technologies, a coming-soon spinoff of Selden business-development-services provider Dynamic Supplier Alignment Inc. With a proprietary technology that promises to boost fuel cell power output by 40 percent while running up significant cost-per-kilowatt savings, the future spinoff needed “a more robust business case,” according to DSA founder and president, Ron Tabbitas.

In addition to DSA’s existing business-development know-how, the boot camp has given MEAn Technologies – a play on “membrane electrode assemblies” – an “absolute great start” on creating regional manufacturing and employment opportunities, Tabbitas noted.

“We have students on the very early-stage project now who will eventually work for the company we create,” he said. “And we’re actively working with other funded SBU programs where these deliverables will align very well.”

Other participants occupied more of a commercialization middle ground. Nanosulf, a resident of SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, has already established a partnership with Brookhaven Town’s landfill, where the company hopes to run a pilot test of its proprietary, environmentally friendly alternative compound for removing hydrogen sulfide from landfill gas streams.

That vision is a little clearer post-boot camp, noted Lori Clarke, who heads Nanosulf’s research team.

“This has provided a way for us to map out a business plan for our technology,” Clarke said. “We all come from the technology world, so this has introduced us to a whole new world.”

Also closer to commercialization than conception is Sanguistat, the corporate face of the so-called neural tourniquet, a blood-staunching-through-electric-nerve-stimulation device born at Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute.

Sanguistat cofounder Chris Czura acknowledged that his team – including cofounder Jared Huston and Feinstein Institute CEO Kevin Tracey, a bioelectronics pioneer who’s labored over the science for nearly two decades – has already “talked through a lot of the things we’re talking about here at boot camp,” but noted the SBU program still made a great contribution to what is “a very solid commercialization plan.”

“What this has done for me personally is fill in a layer of detail,” Czura said. “It’s really given us some solid data behind what we’re trying to do.”

For idea champion Nikolai Joukov, an adjunct NYU instructor and founder of corporate-data modeler ModelizeIT, the boot camp resulted in “lots of connections and lots of help in terms of vision and planning our next steps.”

Joukov’s startup, the only representative of SBU’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program in this year’s camp, builds models of complex IT environments and offers analytical solutions to maximize business intelligence and reduce IT costs by streamlining data efficiency. It’s a difficult concept to explain to laymen, including potential investors, and double so for Joukov, a non-native English speaker.

But the entrepreneur credited CEBIP executive director and boot camp co-organizer Dave Hamilton with assembling exactly the right coaches to polish his presentation.

“I had an absolutely ideal team, with people I couldn’t even imagine helping,” Joukov said. “I don’t think it would be possible to arrange a better team.”


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