Singularity University, the technology think tank and incubator, on Wednesday announced a new accelerator program that aims to push technologies out of research facilities and into the real world.
SU Labs Accelerator’s portfolio boasts companies whose ambitious goals range from restoring vision to the blind to deploying lithium-ion power to schools in the developing world. Such lofty aspirations are normally the purview of storied academic institutions, but Singularity, which is not an accredited University, is uniquely positioned to achieve this as a cross between a think tank and a teaching institute.
Although the accelerator program in itself is new, innovation of this type has been a part of the institution’s history since its founding in 2008. But Pascal Finette, Managing Director of the Accelerator Program, said given the products these companies were trying to create, it was hard for them to gain traction even in the traditionally less risk-averse venture communities.
“They had a hard time finding support, even in the venture community,” said Finette, describing difficulties Singularity alumni had in raising funds and garnering resources. This was an impetus for the launch of the accelerator, which Finette was brought on to run after stints at Google.org and Mozilla.
Companies coming out of the SU Labs Accelerator have the potential to be revolutionary if successful. Canadian FREDSense Technologies is using genetically engineered microorganisms to build a biosensor that can rapidly detect chemicals in water, with uses ranging from effluent analysis to the Fracking industry. Danish Be My Eyes, also in the accelerator’s Fall 2015 class, is an app that builds a crowdsourced network of potential eye donors for the blind.
The accelerator accepts both for-profit and nonprofit companies. For-profit companies exchange what Finette called a small equity stake for $100,000 and nonprofits receive $50,000 in unrestricted grants.
“One of the beautiful things we have as an asset is that we run the executive programs,” explained Finette, adding that connections at the top of large Fortune 500 companies is a huge resource for accelerator companies.
The fickle nature of innovation of this sort and the difficulty in bringing it from the research table to commercial viability are a few of the factors that have kept universities and large corporate research entities at the forefront of leaps-and-bounds innovation. This isn’t without good reason, since failure and reiteration is commonplace, something which investors are not always willing to stomach repeatedly.
The deliberately planned post-accelerator process for the accelerator’s Fall class of 7 was also an advantage to companies in the program, argued Finette.
“The gestation period is longer, it takes longer to mature,” he said, adding that alumni companies will be kept close. “For us, it’s only the first step in a very long journey.”
While financial backing and strong brand image are certainly powerful assets for any new venture to have, the sort of innovation that Finette wants to foster takes more than just deep pockets. Solving critical technical challenges needs a wealth of academic resources, which is why places like Stanford University have been powerhouses for game-changing innovation. It’s hard to envision similar academic environments and resources over at Singularity’s campus at Moffet Field’s NASA Research Park, even more so when market changes and the unpredictability of fundamental research become more potent.
But if this year’s class is any predictor, exciting things are ahead for the SU Labs Accelerator, especially if the class continues to be as selective and small as it is now. The intense selection process could make all the difference in nurturing the intended innovative revolution.
Disclaimer: I’m currently an undergraduate at Stanford and I talk about it a lot.