A growing gap in the transition of inventions from research labs to market is slowing the development and scaling of new hardware technologies in the United States. This is particularly evident in complex advances in microelectronics, in which American leadership has lagged. A workshop on Semiconductor Technology Translation and Hard-Tech Startups recently brought together stakeholders from across the country to analyze this challenge and propose solutions.
Jointly presented last month by MIT, the State University of New York (SUNY) and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the virtual event brought together academic researchers, members of industry, venture capitalists, state and federal agencies, nonprofits, accelerator companies and startups for a wide-ranging conversation about how to reclaim American leadership.
In his opening remarks, MIT provost Martin Schmidt challenged speakers and attendees to seize the moment. “We need to think boldly, act decisively, be willing to reinvent our practices, and not be encumbered by old models of engagement,” said Schmidt, who will assume the chairmanship of RPI in July. “This workshop will touch on an area that is ripe for work, and that is the process by which we bring work from academia to impact through commercialization.”
An audience of 632 joined the 30 guest speakers for a discussion over four sessions: Innovation Ecosystems, Stakeholder Perspectives, Proto-Business and Startup Readiness, and Startup Experiences and Shared Facilities. “It takes a village to turn a nascent idea into a prototype that can then become a product that will hopefully reach millions,” said Vladimir Bulović, Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technologies, Director of Faculty at MIT.nano and co-organizer of the workshop.”Starting and supporting more hard tech startups will generate more technology and more new jobs, which will benefit established industry partners, nurture new industries, and lead to the resurgence of American leadership in microelectronics.”
An environment built for success
What contributes to a thriving innovation ecosystem and how can we create one for hard tech? Fiona Murray, William Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship (1967) and Associate Dean of Innovation and Inclusion at MIT Sloan School of Management, suggested three main features: a strategic focus, a system of key resources for founders such as human talent and funding, and stakeholder connectivity – a community purposefully built around priority areas.
View a video playlist of Technical Translation Workshop presentations.
This concept of connectivity echoed throughout the workshop. “Proximity fosters connectivity fosters collaboration,” said Bob Metcalfe, professor emeritus of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin. Metcalfe noted seven “species” necessary for a thriving startup ecosystem: funding agencies, research professors, graduate students, growing entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategic partners, and early adopters.
To explore the perspectives of these many stakeholders, the workshop featured presentations from experts in different roles and from different geographies. Speaking from an industry and venture capital perspective, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Applied Materials Omkaram Nalamasu, Managing Director of Intel Capital Sean Doyle and Managing Director of In -Q-Tel Eileen Tanghal gave advice on what to look for when investing in hard tech. Common topics included proof of concept, shared development facilities for cost and efficiency, access to talent, and ability to engage customers.
“Hard-tech startups have this very broad valley of death. They have a lot of challenges when it comes to finding the right people, getting money, and securing partnerships. said Tanghal, describing hurdles for startups such as an aging workforce in the semiconductor industry, supply chain issues and difficulties finding a first customer.
From university to commercialization
Expanding the talent pool comes with its own obstacles. Julie Lenzer, director of innovation at the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, spoke about the challenges universities face in supporting hard tech – slow academia, risk aversion, ownership of intellectual property ( PI), the misalignment of mission when the entrepreneurial activity of faculty or students is not celebrated by the institution, and the problem that universities do not produce market-ready products.
“A lot of times when we come out of the lab, the technology readiness levels are very low and slow; it’s very early technology,” said Lenzer, former director of innovation at the University of Maryland. “It presents a high technical risk – will it work? We don’t know yet, but it will take a lot of capital to get there. Is the market ready for this? Is it better for someone to disrupt their way of doing things? It’s not just about technology, it’s about market opportunities.
To help prepare hard-tech startups, support systems are needed. Jason Ethier, Senior Director of Members at Greentown Labs, Aimee Rose, Executive Managing Director of Activate, and Grant Warner, Director of Innovation at Howard University College of Engineering and Architecture, explored best practices for preparing founders, highlighting the importance of articulating a business hypothesis, understanding market needs, and being open-minded and coachable.
The start-up point of view
The workshop also called on startup founders themselves to share their experiences and pain points. Veronika Stelmakh, CEO and co-founder of Mesodyne, highlighted the many entrepreneurship competitions and acceleration programs she and her co-founder have participated in to learn how to discover customers, how to run a business, and what grants to apply for.
Now, she says, their main challenge is cost reduction. “For that, we need volume. To get volume, we need traction with customers. To attract customers, you need a product, and if your product is expensive, you can’t get there,” she said. “This chicken-and-egg problem is why we need programs, especially for high-tech startups, that allow us to build things with limited resources.”
Access to shared facilities and tool sets to help reduce costs and drive the development of new hard technologies was a recurring theme throughout the workshop. “Space is precious,” said John Iacoponi, vice president of technology strategy at NY CREATES, which manages the Albany NanoTech complex. “We find that startups need to be able to switch hardware, have a flexible space, and tools that no one entity can afford to buy.”
In conclusion, Bob Karlicek, Professor of Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering at RPI and co-organizer of the workshop, explained the challenges facing academia. “We need fab tech earlier in the educational process,” Karlicek said. “We need more factories accessible to students and faculty to drive the creation of this pool of talent and much faster innovation at the university level. We need to think about intellectual property strategies to protect startups. We need better seed funding models, bigger pools of seed capital.
“Universities should be seen as generators of talent, not only for training the next engineers, but also the next batch of entrepreneurs,” continued co-organizer Nick Querques, director of new ventures at the SUNY Research Foundation. “Significant capital is needed at all levels, starting with non-dilutive government funding for technologies and multi-institutional centers, and ending with industry investments in startups and facilities.”
The Semiconductor Technology Translation and Hard Tech Startups Workshop demonstrated the high level of concern and interest of stakeholders across the country to improve the process of bringing new technologies to market harsh. To change, it will take the whole ecosystem.
“It’s not just the idea, it’s also the process of scaling that idea, the process of building talent and understanding the stakeholders that you will encounter,” Bulović summed up. “We need a national program that can bring many more startups to the scaling stage. We need more shootouts, and that will translate into more success and the resurgence of the nation’s ability to remaster the dominance of microelectronics and many other hard-tech industries.