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From inventor to entrepreneur

Creating a startup to commercialize technology developed during research is a risky road for physicists and engineers, but the help of experts can improve their chances.

Many researchers in high-energy physics are inventors by default.

In their efforts to study phenomena on the smallest and largest scales, physicists and engineers wind up developing new technologies that have applications outside of the lab. For example, some of the superconducting magnets and particle detectors originally created for high-energy physics research are now instrumental in the field of medical imaging.

Herein lies an alternative career path for scientists outside of academia: entrepreneurship.

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Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

The process of taking a new product to market, however, is risky. Commercialization requires an extensive amount of time, money and luck. But through legislation and training programs, scientists have found new support on their paths to becoming entrepreneurs.

Oil and water

In 2010, Arden Warner was watching coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on TV.

“They were trying different things to stop the leak,” says Warner, an accelerator scientist at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “I started to get concerned.”

Not only was Warner worried about the environment, but there was talk of the oil riding the Gulf Stream to Barbados, where he was born. When the Secretary of Energy called on the national laboratories to propose solutions, Arden stepped up.

As someone who works with magnets while developing particle accelerators at Fermilab, Warner naturally turned to them for a solution. In a Dixie cup of oil and water, he figured out how to get magnetic particles to bond preferentially with the oil and used a magnetic field to remove it.

“That’s when I knew I had to talk to Fermilab’s technology transfer office,” he says.

At US universities and national laboratories, scientists and engineers are required to disclose inventions developed with federal funding to a technology transfer office. A tech transfer specialist certifies the origin of the invention and then decides whether to move forward with the patent process.

It used to be that in the United States, inventions like this belonged to the government. But the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 changed that: Now the invention belongs to the individual institution. All US national labs and universities have technology transfer offices, which can aid an inventor in patenting and commercializing their invention.

“The government is trying to make it easier for companies to commercialize and researchers to be able to transfer out technologies and expertise,” says Aaron Sauers, a senior patent and licensing executive in Fermilab’s tech transfer office.

A tech transfer specialist’s first step is to determine if the invention is novel and useful enough to be patented as intellectual property.

Sauers says scientists sometimes fail to disclose an invention because it doesn’t seem significant enough, or because they’re skeptical of a patent’s worth.

“At a bare minimum, you can put [a patent] on your resume because it’s another kind of publication,” he says. “You could attract collaborators who see that you’ve patented in a particular area. And you could potentially license it.”

Sauers says sometimes scientists write about inventions in scientific publications instead, assuming they will be able to file a patent later. But the order of operations matters. “If you publish first, that can hurt your ability to patent,” he says. “But if you put it in a patent application, then you can publish without worry.”

If a new technology is deemed worthy of patenting, the tech transfer office helps a researcher with the paperwork and handles the $15,000 to $20,000 of filing fees and legal expenses. The costly process is also time-intensive. With the help of the tech transfer office, it took Warner four years to patent his technology, which is not unusual.

Once a patent is filed, the lab or university makes a call for proposals from companies that would like to use the invention to try to make a profit. They can license the invention to a single company, or they can license the invention for different uses or for use in different regions to multiple companies.

Warner applied to take out a license on his invention to start his own business. For exclusive use of the patent, Warner’s company will give Fermilab a small percentage of his sales after he reaches a certain level of profit. The company will also reimburse Fermilab for patent costs over time.

In 2016, Warner launched his company, Natural Science, LLC. Once established, they were able to attract partners and funding to build a full-scale prototype, which Warner finally tested in 2019.

He says seeing his idea in action was the most memorable part of the process so far. “I still get chills from that part.”

Despite being nine years old, Natural Science, LLC is still considered a startup. “I learned along the way that any idea, no matter how good, takes about 10 years to develop into a business,” Warner says. “Overnight success takes years.”

Learning the science of business   

To help researchers reach this success, the Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions offers Energy I-Corps, a training program that teaches scientist-inventors how to bring their technology to market.

When Sean Sullivan was a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory, he and his collaborator at the University of Chicago, Manish Kumar Singh, patented results from their research through U Chicago’s tech transfer office. They were working on integrating quantum bits—qubits—for applications in quantum memory and communication.

“With some of the fundamental physics of quantum memory demonstrated, we wanted to take that a step further and tackle the engineering challenge to develop a usable device,” Sullivan says.

The two signed up for Energy I-Corps. During the two-month training program, participants pair up with industry mentors and conduct interviews with around 100 potential users. They do this to identify possible market applications of their technology and to establish a model for their business.

This program allowed Sullivan and Singh to zero in on their most likely customers, such as those who want to use quantum computing to solve difficult computations or to create secure communication links.

As the Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions, Vanessa Chan helps researchers navigate the commercialization process, from research to development, to demonstration, to deployment.

“There's a new skill set not taught in graduate school that you need to develop if you're really passionate about commercialization, and that's what Energy I-Corps is doing,” she says. “To get your stuff out there, you need to go talk to people outside the lab to figure out how your technology is going to solve their problems.”

Seeing a path forward, Sullivan and Singh negotiated a licensing agreement for their patent. They started full-time operations at their business, memQ Inc., in December 2022. Since then, they have raised $2.5 million in venture funding, a significant milestone as they work toward their goal of becoming a self-sustaining business.

Some researchers may not be able to take the time to participate in an intensive program like Energy I-Corps.

“I think Energy I-Corps is a great immersive program, but we’re also looking to see if we can develop some asynchronous materials, because it’s very difficult for some researchers to take that much time off,” Chan says.

Other non-asynchronous options for researchers include incubators and accelerators. “My advice is if you at all think you’re interested in commercializing, start exploring programs that your university [or other institution] offers,” Sullivan says. “I wish we would have started even sooner.”

Like Energy I-Corps, incubators and accelerators are training programs that beef up early-stage companies through education, networking and access to resources.

“A program like an accelerator or an incubator gives a founder the space to learn how to run a business, which is hard to do if you just have your head down in a lab,” says Dan Sachs, the executive director of Polsky Deep Tech Ventures, an organization that runs several domain-specific deep tech accelerators through the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center. Sullivan and Singh’s memQ is currently participating in Duality, Polsky Deep Tech Ventures’ accelerator focused on quantum startups.

Most researchers have no idea how to run a business, Sachs says. Mentors and coaches at incubators and accelerators help fill in these gaps.

Risky business

Sullivan says one of the biggest things he’s learned through participating in training programs is how to be more comfortable with risk.

“In science, you always want to take things gradually and methodically, so I think being comfortable with the level of risk involved in being an entrepreneur is hard for a lot of scientists,” Sullivan says. “Talking to people helped me understand that the risk is baked in.”

Physicists interested in improving the chances for scientists-turned-entrepreneurs held discussions over the last few years as a part of the 2021 Snowmass Process, a particle physics community planning exercise.

Their main takeaway: “I think funding is key—and funding beyond just training programs,” says Farah Fahim, head of the microelectronics division in the emerging technologies directorate at Fermilab, who co-led the topical discussions related to tech transfer during Snowmass.

For example, she says, researchers could use funding specifically for prototype development. This part of the process is expensive, especially for deep technology: the cutting-edge innovations that typically come out of high-energy physics. But many venture capital firms won’t invest in an invention before seeing a prototype.

“It’s kind of like a Catch-22,” Fahim says.

She has experienced this Catch-22 herself. Fahim designs detectors capable of ultrafast X-ray imaging. Through Fermilab’s tech transfer office, she patented camera systems that could be used in medical imaging or in the semiconductor industry for quality assurance during product fabrication.

After patenting her technology, she attended some entrepreneurial trainings. She even presented her ideas to venture capital firms, but without a prototype, they were unwilling to take the risk on her product.

Fahim believes funding, programs and other resources should be developed to take this huge financial risk off researchers’ startups and ensure they land on their feet. This would allow inventors from more socio-economic backgrounds to make the leap into entrepreneurship, she says.

“The whole thing is based mostly on luck. If you ask me, we only have four or five entrepreneurs in the entire life of Fermilab, but we have loads of inventors,” she says. “We need to democratize this process by creating programs and processes which allow a smooth transition.”

Many researchers in high-energy physics are inventors by default. But their ideas, career paths and personal lives—not to mention funding opportunities and the demands of the market—must all align for them to become successful entrepreneurs.