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Ignite expansion a boon for Cornell startups, technologies

The generosity of an alumna, along with a major infusion of funding from the Office of the Provost, has turbocharged Cornell’s ability to turn promising academic research into viable startups and products.

Ignite – Cornell Research: Lab to Market – a program managed by the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) – offers “gap” funding to promising Cornell-developed technology innovations that have commercial potential but are too early in their development for commercial licensing or venture investment.

Available funding for the program will increase more than sevenfold – up to $3 million in fiscal year 2022, from $400,000 last year – thanks to a significant increase in financial support from the provost’s office, as well as a $1 million gift from Peggy J. Koenig ’78, chair of Boston-based private equity investment firm Abry Partners, LLC.

Peggy J. Koenig ’78

“Innovation and a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem are vitally important to the university,” said Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff. “Ignite plays a key role in the development of early technology and our expansion of available seed funding indicates our commitment to helping Cornell faculty, staff and students successfully advance their ideas.

“Giving researchers the resources they need to take their ideas from the bench to a beneficial product is good for everyone, and reflects Cornell’s ‘knowledge with a public purpose’ ethos,” Kotlikoff said. “And we are extremely grateful to Peggy Koenig for her generosity.”

“This is an important area of growth and opportunity for the university,” said Koenig, a vice chair of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, chair of the board’s Research and Innovation Committee and a member of the Cornell Tech Council.

“With the innovation of having started the Cornell Tech campus,” she said, “along with that comes the opportunity to really continue to innovate and for innovation to flourish, and for us to support translational research. This [Ignite] is a tremendous growth opportunity.”

“The new funding offers the potential to literally ignite the translation of early discoveries to products and services and, in doing so, realize a core tenet of the university’s mission to maximize its impact,” said Emmanuel Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation. “We are grateful to the provost and to Peggy Koenig for making available the resources to fill this critical funding gap.”

The major funding infusion will expand two existing programs and create two new ones.

The Ignite Innovation Acceleration program – designed to support proof-of-concept inventions so they can reach the next inflection point in commercialization, and attract interest from industry partners, entrepreneurs and investors – has been significantly expanded. The enhanced program will support, on a competitive basis, 12 to 16 projects annually involving faculty, research staff and/or graduate students from Cornell’s Ithaca, Geneva and Cornell Tech campuses.

Funded projects will receive up to $50,000 per funding cycle; select projects that have reached certain milestones will be eligible for another $50,000 under the new Prime option. Previously, projects could receive a maximum of $50,000.

The Ignite Startup Projects program – designed to help early-stage startup companies with technology and business validation and support their next round of investment and funding opportunities – has also been expanded. Project funding up to $50,000, or up to $100,000 under the Prime option, will be available via a SAFE [simple agreement for future equity] note to the company.

“This program,” Giannelis said, “will be a tremendous resource to Cornell’s growing pipeline of new ventures.”

New under the Ignite umbrella is the Postdoc for Ventures program, which is set to launch in January. Funds will be used to hire entrepreneurial-minded postdocs – from both within and outside Cornell – with the explicit goal of starting new technology ventures based on Cornell inventions. Participants will begin work in one of Cornell labs, supervised by Cornell faculty, and be mentored by the directors of Ithaca-based business incubators Praxis and McGovern, as well as the Runway Startup Postdocs program at Cornell Tech.

After the initial period of working in a Cornell lab, follow-up funding will be contingent on starting a company and transitioning to Praxis, McGovern or Runway Startup Postdocs. Each year’s cohort will include five or six postdocs; each cohort will remain in the program for a total of 18 months on average.

In addition to the three main programs, other opportunities under the Ignite include a new summer internship program, which will connect Cornell students with Cornell-affiliated startups that have not yet raised series A (early-stage) financing.

Alice Li, Ph.D. ’98, executive director of CTL, said this expanded funding series represents more than just an opportunity to increase Cornell’s portfolio of licensed companies and technologies.

“It goes way beyond licensing,” she said. “This is a major commitment from Cornell to build our innovation pipeline for commercial and social impact, and help train scientists and engineers in entrepreneurship. And as a result, we will likely have more successful technology commercialization, more successful launching and growth of startups, which will further enrich the entrepreneurial ecosystem and industry collaborations.”

Cornell researchers interested in participating in the Ignite program can learn more on the Ignite website.

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Lindsey Knewstub