Written byTajha Chappellet-Lanier
When the 13 teams that made up Fed Tech’s fall 2017 cohort took the stage for their first pitch night in September, it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing.
The entrepreneurs, some of whom had been introduced to their assigned technology just days earlier, struggled to pronounce long scientific words or, in some cases, explain what the technology is at all. The task wasn’t easy, but the entrepreneurs didn’t get a pass either. “You gotta tell me what you do,” the group of rowdy mentors lobbed at one team. “Tell me who cares.”
Fed Tech is a technology transfer accelerator — founder Ben Solomon describes it as a “platform” that matches would-be entrepreneurs to technologies developed in federal labs. The entrepreneurs then spend two months learning about the technology and, through copious interviews, exploring its potential in other markets. The essential question the entrepreneurs ask: What else can this tech do?
For example, a sensor may have been designed to detect particles that denote living things as a way to help find life off earth. But what else can this sensor do? Could it be useful in the medical field? As a way to monitor air quality? Or what about this software the Air Force built to help train fighter pilots? Could it possibly help with learning other subjects, too?
Fed Tech started as part of the DC I-Corps program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, in 2013. At first the program mostly worked with MBA student entrepreneurs, but it has expanded since. In the latest cohort, most participants were either students or serial entrepreneur types. Now the program gets funding from the University of Maryland and the Department of Defense’s national security accelerator, MD5.
Solomon and the Fed Tech team work to build the initial relationships with the federal labs, talking to researchers about their work and picking the most interesting technologies. Solomon says he has no issues convincing these labs to participate. “I have more demand on the lab side than we’re actually able to support,” he told FedScoop — lab scientists love to see a startup emerge out of their research.
On the entrepreneur’s side, the Fed Tech experience can lead anywhere on a spectrum of success. Sometimes, two months is enough for the team to decide to continue working with the technology, potentially toward a licensing agreement with the lab and the creation of an actual company. Other times all the market research yields no obvious answers and the teams decides to move on. Solomon said that in any given cohort about half of the teams decide to continue on.
These numbers held up in the fall 2017 cohort — around seven of the 13 teams plan to persevere, Solomon said. Of these, a top four were selected to give a revamped pitch to the crowd gathered at a graduation event last week.
This time around, things went more smoothly.
A team that, back in September, patently admitted they didn’t know what the nanomaterial sensor they had their hands on could possibly use it for identified a very specific idea — environmental testing. Factories that deal with nanoparticles, the team imparted, have to test their environment to ensure that they remain within safe and legal limits. However, current sensing technology is bulky and slow — the team thinks they might be able to build a better option.
And a graphene sensor designed to sense life off earth? With more research, the team hopes, it might be able to aid in early detection of encephalitis.
Seeing this transformation is Solomon’s favorite part of his gig. Often, these technologies are complex and difficult for the entrepreneurs to grasp. But they do learn — “they start from this place of uncomfortable,” he said. “And then by the end they’re passionate about it.”