Activate 2018: ‘Like getting a jolt of energy’

Why Activate 2018 has me more excited than ever about the future of Cyclotron Road.

Cyclotron Road fellow Jessica Morrison kicked off Activate 2018 with her vision for the future of lighting and its impact on human health. (All photos by Paul Mueller Photography, unless otherwise noted)

It’s a few minutes into Activate 2018, our annual innovator showcase, and I have the best seat in the house.

I’m sitting in the A/V booth at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center, leaning forward in my chair with my elbows propped on a sturdy table. My perspiring palms are pressed together and my chin rests lightly on the pads of my thumbs. Down on the polished hardwood stage, our executive director Ilan Gur begins his opening remarks.

From this vantage point I can see nearly all of the more than 300 people in attendance turn their chairs to face the podium. This is our third year hosting Activate, but kicking off the event is still nerve-wracking for me. Will our message resonate? Are people tired of hearing a new take on the same old story? Or will they start checking their phones? It’s all so easy to see from up above.

As if on cue: “For those of you who have been here before, it may feel like you’ve heard this story before,” Ilan says. “And I’m hopeful that you’re getting a bit tired of it, because that means it’s starting to stick.”

Cyclotron Road executive director Ilan Gur highlights our fellows and their accomplishments during his opening remarks at Activate 2018 (left) and my view from the A/V booth (right, photo my own)

I think back to last year. Activate 2017 had turned out to be a rallying point for our community, affirming our purpose—supporting science innovators as they move technology concepts toward first products and helping them transform from scientists into business leaders along the way—and cheering us onward.

But as I look around the room this year it feels like the stakes are higher. Though many people in the room have been supporters since the beginning, there are also more new faces in the crowd than ever before. Nearly all of our guests are influential investors, corporate executives, or philanthropists — a few of them key funders for our program and many of them potential investors and partners for our fellows and their startups.

Like last year, we‘ve gathered these leaders to hear our fellows present their vision for a better future, to view prototype demonstrations, and, hopefully, to strike up fruitful conversations that lead to new investments and partnerships. But this year we’re also telling a bigger story. Earlier in the day we published our first ever Impact Report, publicly declaring our program’s successes to date. And our team has begun considering how to scale our effort to meet a much bigger need than our current program can support.

Will the many key stakeholders in the room, old and new, be on board with our vision, too?

Within a few hours, as it becomes clear that our guests are amped up, my nervousness is replaced with anticipation for what the future will bring. As former DARPA director Arati Prabhakar (who we interviewed for Phase Change earlier this year) says toward the end of the evening, the event is “like getting a jolt of energy.”

So what happened and why did it get our community so excited? Here’s my take:

1. We used data to show why Cyclotron Road matters

We’ve always framed the need for Cyclotron Road around a basic problem: today’s research ecosystem does not support scientists on the path from science to product, which means our smartest, best trained people aren’t able to develop solutions to pressing problems in areas such as energy, manufacturing, defense, food, and health. Over the years we’ve highlighted dozens of compelling anecdotes to make this case, while alluding to broad trends in venture capital and government funding to anchor them.

This year, we decided to dig into the data a bit more deeply to see if it told its own story. The results were striking, if not surprising. Through an analysis of deals in Pitchbook, our team found that less than 10 percent of seed-stage venture capital deals in 2017 went to companies developing products based in the physical and biological sciences, with less than 3 percent going toward products outside of the life-sciences in fields such as physics, chemistry, and materials science. We also found that less than 2 percent of federal research funding goes to small companies, with almost none supporting nascent startups. The resulting gap represents a huge unmet need and also a huge opportunity. Our nation’s best and brightest are hungry for a chance to change the world.

We shared these findings with the audience at Activate and the response was immediate:

But the story in our data didn’t end there. In our 2018 Impact Report and on stage at Activate, we shared publicly for the first time some of the metrics we are seeing four years into running Cyclotron Road. Here are the highlights:

  • Since 2015, more than 850 scientists from around the world (including applicants for Cohort 5, currently under review) have applied to Cyclotron Road for a chance to pursue their technology vision. Many of the 41 fellows we have supported will tell you that in the absence of our support, they would have struggled to find a path forward for their technology.
  • Over the last four years, Cyclotron Road fellows have demonstrated that our support can enable key learning cycles, pivots, and de-risking milestones. More than 2/3 of our project teams have made at least one major technology or market pivot during the program. A similar number have built a first prototype during their two year fellowship. (Keep in mind that these are research-based products based on physical and biological science, not software or business model innovations.)
  • With just two cohorts graduated, the Cyclotron Road community has collectively attracted more than $80 million in seed-stage funding alone, in many ways catalyzed and enabled by our initial fellowship support.

The bottom line: our support is enabling a new path for the development of innovators and their ideas that would otherwise not exist. Brought to life by anecdotes, this story hit home even harder with data to back it up.

2. Our fellows rocked their presentations, electrifying the room

We spend a lot of time working with our fellows to prepare their two-minute presentations for Activate and each year they seem to get better and better. Monitoring the event from the A/V booth, I often find myself rising out of my seat and pumping my fist when one of them nails a subtle transition that we practiced, or asserts their vision with clarity and confidence. This year, I was standing for nearly the entire event, as our fellows described how their products could lead to cleaner energy production, safer chemicals, more efficient buildings, manufacturing, and transportation, better human health, fewer wildfires, and other benefits to society.

Each presentation had its moments of inspiration and the optimism in the room was palpable. Here were few of the most sublime moments for me:

Cohort Three fellow Sarah Richardson at Activate 2018

Obsessed with bacteria

Cohort Three fellow Sarah Richardson has spent much of her career trying to get people to see what’s right under their noses. As she said at last year’s Activate event “Bacteria run this planet.” This year, she made the case that humanity’s microbial myopia is also locking us out of what could be the world’s biggest economy: working with microbes to make economical, biologically derived products for industries as diverse as waste remediation, mining, industrial chemicals, and fuels. Her company, MicroByre, hopes to unlock this opportunity by using bioengineering and informatics to enlist previously unavailable organisms—beyond the E. coli and yeast used by traditional biotech—to make cheaper, cleaner, and more useful products for humanity.

Cohort Four fellow Nishita Deka at Activate 2018

Looking inside the brain

Cohort Four fellow Nishita Deka, who recently joined Cyclotron Road along with her Sonera Magnetics cofounder Dominic Labanowski, gave a striking perspective on brain medicine: our ability to study the brain is limited to invasive or wildly expensive techniques that look archaic compared to our ability to study the rest of the body. Dom and Nishita hope to change that by developing the worlds first truly portable and non-invasive brain diagnostic device. Based on a new type of magnetic sensor they invented as PhD students at UC Berkeley, the technology could also serve as the basis for a true brain-machine interface, among other futuristic applications. As we recently learned in our Backstories series, this endeavor is driven by equal parts personal motivation, intellectual interest, and medical history for Nishita, and her passion for the problem was evident on stage.

(Sonera also represents a new direction for Cyclotron Road, as Dom and Nishita are among our first group of fellows working in the field of microelectronics through our partnership with DARPA.)

“Spoiler alert, it’s #notpaint”

Cohort Three fellow Lance Brockway, co-founder and chief technology officer of Nelumbo, amused the crowd with his millennial one-liner: “Spoiler alert, it’s #notpaint.” Nelumbo uses materials science to create surface modifications that can dramatically improve corrosion resistance and energy efficiency in heat exchangers and other industrial products (corrosion alone costs businesses a whopping $2.5 trillion annually worldwide). Unlike coatings that are painted onto a surface but might flake, dissolve, or melt away, Nelumbo’s approach fundamentally modifies the surface of a part, making it significantly more durable — hence the hashtag. Lance announced Nelumbo’s recent funding and new facility during his presentation, capping an exciting year of progress for the startup.

Of course, what mattered in the end was not that the presentations themselves were polished, well delivered, or beautifully designed. The typical guest at Activate sees more than their fair share of Powerpoint slides in their average workweek. What mattered most was that people were moved by the future that our fellows presented, and inspired by the fact that our fellows, and our organization, are tackling really hard problems.

On that front, another one of our guests captured the mood in the room: “An inspiring, optimistic day with the world’s brightest minds addressing the toughest energy and sustainability challenges facing our planet.” Amen.

3. Our team’s energy and enthusiasm was infectious

Our team brings an all-hands-on-deck attitude to organizing this event each year. Between delivering materials to the venue, setting up the space, managing guests, speaking on stage, sharing highlights on social media, organizing side events, and putting out logistical fires behind the scenes, it is a huge undertaking. Yet, despite all of this work, Activate always ends up feeling like a celebration. By far the most fulfilling thing about hosting this event for me is getting to share the process with my colleagues, whose enthusiasm, humor, and tenacity is seemingly limitless.

Cyclotron Road senior administrator Melanie Miller signals the end of a networking break with the signature tolling of her bell.

It’s obvious that this energy rubs off on guests at the event. As one attendee put it in a follow up survey, “CR, you knocked it out of the ballpark! EXCELLENT day.” It’s also the biggest reason I’m optimistic about what lies ahead for Cyclotron Road. Our team is more driven than ever to continue connecting all the people needed to support the science innovators that society so acutely needs. That’s what Activate is about and, if it keeps happening, only good things will come.

Cyclotron Road staff, presenters, and guests after Activate 2018.

Missed the event this year? Check out the video and more photos below.

Are you a funder, investor, corporate executive, or other supporter of science innovation interested in attending Activate in 2019? Contact us at info [at] cyclotronroad [dot] org to inquire about an invitation.

Photos (left to right, top to bottom): MicroByre co-founder Maggie Brown at the company booth; Cohort Three fellow Lauren Otto on stage; Cohort Three fellow David Bierman chats with SunPower founder Dick Swanson; Laurie ten Hope, deputy director for R&D at the California Energy Commission introduces Cohort Four; Cohort Four fellow Erkan Aktakka shows off a prototype to Kelly Chen of Data Collective; Cohort Four fellow Jill Fuss on stage; Johanna Wolfson, principal with PRIME Coalition, chats with Cohort Four fellow Miguel Sierra Aznar (right) and co-founder Tim Sennott, Cohort Three fellow Sarah Richardson at the MicroByre booth