Harvard Entrepreneurs’ Summer Road Trip
As Harvard invests in expanding engineering and applied sciences—in the growth of the faculty ranks at the eponymous school, and in such stand-alone entities as the enormous Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering—its professors and affiliated scientists increasingly pursue both their research and classroom work, and commerce: seeding and starting new enterprises based on their discoveries. The latter activities are supported by the Office of Technology Development (OTD), whose diverse services took on a new dimension, in a new venue, on June 26, when it sponsored a financing event in Palo Alto for a half-dozen companies whose businesses are based on University-developed technologies.
Sam Liss, OTD’s executive director of strategic partnerships, who organized the road trip, described it as “a bit of an experiment for us”—a new level of trying to “enable the startups coming from our research enterprise, from our labs.” As reported (see link above), OTD staff members work with professors, postdocs, and others from the earliest inception of potentially commercial ideas; use “accelerator” funds to see whether a basic idea might be the seed of a product or enterprise; and then advise on how to develop it—if as an enterprise, beginning with the crucial step of attracting initial funding, typically from an individual acting as an “angel” investor, or from a local venture capital firm such as Matrix Partners or The Engine (at MIT). Boston is well equipped to fund life-sciences, biotechnology, and biomedical companies through further financing rounds as they expand and take compounds or therapies through expensive clinical trials. But for computer, electronic, Internet, robotics, and related technologies—the number and sophistication of which “has really been improving,” Liss said—Silicon Valley remains the mother lode. Hence, the desire to tiptoe into Stanford’s backyard, so to speak.
Recruiting candidate companies was “pretty easy,” he continued: OTD knows about the technologies and the associated personnel from its early association with the faculty members, postdocs, and students who made the discoveries. OTD assembled six enterprises with obvious appeal to the West Coast venture community—in quantum and cloud computing, robotics, and semiconductor technologies—and at varying stages of developing their businesses.
RightHand Robotics and Soft Robotics—which aim to automate the last stages of picking items for e-commerce shipment, manufacturing, and retail applications—have already raised $25 million to $35 million each, and are scaling up products and systems for broader commercial sale. (Amazon’s announcement yesterday that it would invest $700 million in enhancing employees’ skills and retraining suggests that it expects to further automate the huge warehouses in which so many of them work—the kind of repetitive, delicate tasks that robots may soon perform.) HyperLight and Boreas Technologies, both developing semiconductor chips and devices, have attracted initial financing, but now seek more substantial backing. And SuitUp (wearable robotics, emanating from the Wyss Institute) and Aliro (quantum computing) are in pursuit of their initial, seed backing.
All those companies made formal financing pitches; an informal presentation was also made by an enterprise emanating from the fecund laboratories of Winthrop professor of genetics George Church; it seeks to tap the potential of DNA for information storage. The funded companies paid their own way for the road trip; OTD underwrote the outing for the fledgling enterprises—and brought along Bemis professor of law and professor of computer science Jonathan Zittrain, faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as a keynote speaker on the intersection of artificial intelligence and ethics.
The most fledgling of the presenting enterprises is Aliro, newly organized as a company this summer. It stems from the research and teaching of Prineha Narang, a Caltech Ph.D. who joined the faculty in 2017 as assistant professor of computational materials science. A self-described “avid triathlete,” whose spare Pierce Hall office was adorned principally by her bicycle, stowed on a rainy day, she explained that her work involves understanding how to “compute properties and materials” at the quantum scale—where the rules of classical mechanics and the familiar behaviors of everyday matter no longer apply. Doing so, she said, involves new computing architectures, and the power of the world’s largest supercomputers.
There is enormous interest in the high-speed, low-energy-consuming potential of quantum computing devices (Harvard initiated a program in quantum science last winter). A couple of years ago, Narang said, IBM and other entities introduced “noisy, intermediate-scale” quantum-computing devices for experimental use—raising the question about how they might be readily programmed for scientific exploration (rather than requiring elaborate, one-time engineering for each application or test). She had, as she put it, played around with graphics-processing units, the computer chips used in high-speed data processing and visualization, starting a decade ago—when the best way to access such devices was to disassemble a Playstation. So although her laboratory is largely focused on modeling the properties of materials at the quantum scale (from which work experimentalists can actually test and measure the theoretical findings), she is familiar with the computing and software issues.
A couple of “rock-star undergraduates” in computer science, who had already taken classes in algorithms and computing theory before studying with her, proposed synthesizing these disciplines to facilitate using the quantum devices. And so, she said, she encouraged them (“It’s totally doable”)—and the resulting work generated intellectual property that was first patented, with Liss’s help, late last year. Now that work has resulted in Aliro, co-founded by the two undergraduates, a postdoc, and Narang herself, and based this summer at the iLab. Harvard and MIT students are working in the business, along with the co-founders, this summer; a full-time product leader has been hired; and the search is on for a CEO—and regular office space, perhaps the toughest hurdle in Boston’s hot market.
Its focus, as described in the handout for the Palo Alto briefing, is “software for emerging cloud-based quantum computing platforms”—so different quantum solutions can be operated with common software. A Boston venture firm, Flybridge, provided initial funding, but, Narang said, “We thought we’d like the exposure and it would be fun to see what it’s like there.” As a result, she said, Aliro has attracted “a bunch more money than we need” from interested West Coast investors, and in fact, “We’re figuring out who we’ll disappoint by the close of business today.” New enterprises of course often turn out to need more money than they initially expect—and in any event, she said, having multiple early investors creates a more robust syndicate for subsequent rounds of financing.
There are plenty of Harvard-trained members of the Silicon Valley investing community (such as past Corporation member James W. Breyer, M.B.A. ’87), and other connections as well: the Harvard event was hosted at the Palo Alto office of WilmerHale. William F. Lee, senior fellow of the Corporation, is a former co-managing partner of the firm worldwide—and a prominent intellectual-property litigator who has, among other clients, repeatedly represented Apple Inc. in its litigation with Qualcomm.
The OTD event both builds on and broadens such connections, Liss said, as Harvard develops its West Coast technology “ecosystem,” like the one already thriving in Boston and Cambridge. The June 26 gathering attracted about 100 guests, representing 30 venture-capital firms, “strategic investors” (the venture arms of operating companies), and companies curious to keep up on current technologies, according to Caroline Perry, OTD’s communications director.
Liss said there had been frequent conversations and exchanges since the gathering, which he judged successful already, based on the contacts made there. Ideally, of course, he hopes those discussions lead to funding commitments—like those Narang is pursuing. OTD plans to repeat the program, he said: he envisions alternating presentations focusing on technology and life-sciences enterprises and potential investments.
As for Narang, one month into her formal role as co-founder of an organized business with patented intellectual property, “I suspect other companies will be coming out of my lab” in the future.