OPI Accelerators: Bridging Ideas to Enterprise

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Sujatha Ramanujan, Ph.D., is managing director of Luminate. She is a serial entrepreneur and has started and built businesses in cardiac surgical equipment, optical communications, and nano materials.

Business accelerators — such as Y Combinator, renowned for its contri­bution to the success of high-growth companies such as Dropbox and Reddit — have been around for years. Yet these types of accelarators are largely unknown in the optics, photonics, and imaging (OPI) industry.

Often created as regional investment funds, business accelerators connect early-stage startup entrepreneurs to funding, mentorship, and networks that can help turn ideas into successful companies. The OPI industry is exploding with emerging technologies and big ideas, with the potential to transform capabilities in a wide range of industries. Yet many of these ideas may never reach commercialization without a supportive ecosystem.

Accelerators provide that support because they offer: 1) a powerful boost to OPI innovation via funds that are rarely available at early stages, 2) know-how beyond business planning, and 3) access to experts who are skilled at moving novel ideas from prototype to mass production.

Positioning of OPI startups

It’s extremely common for startups to be working on fast-to-market ideas, such as software apps, which require no expensive lab or manufacturing equipment. Comparatively, entrepreneurs in the OPI industry are something of an anomaly. They tackle complex problems, such as augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, machine vision, and biophotonics, which require both specialized expertise and longer development cycles. Their solutions involve elaborate manufacturing proces­ses and equipment, and in many cases a skilled workforce that does not yet exist.

Complex problems such as these necessitate industry collaboration, along with new safety, security, quality and regulatory measures (think of medical devices) that add significant time to the commercialization process. For reasons such as these, OPI startups require deeper, industry-specific expertise and resources, and greater investor patience. Accelerators specifically designed to satisfy this range of needs can make hurdles more manageable.

OPI entrepreneurs

Along with necessary capital and expertise, business accelerators offer technical facilities, industry access, and human collaboration. There is tremendous value for OPI startup entrepreneurs to be around others in the industry, sharing information unique to their market, parti­cularly manufacturing processes and protocols.

Consider, for example, that more than 150 optics and imaging-related companies are located in Rochester, N.Y. — regarded as the world’s optics and imaging cap­ital. Supporting these companies are government- and university-funded research and development resources, such as the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics, the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Rochester Institute of Technology’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, and Lobozzo Photonics and Optical Characterization Lab.

Access to the expansive suite of equipment and labs of these resources through an accelerator program can be integral to success, especially considering that entrepreneurs who have developed ideas within uni­versity systems often lose access to equipment and labs once they graduate.

Making connections

American accelerators often rely on competitions to engage with the most promising st­artups. Luminate NY, which is administered by NextCorps in Rochester, is one such accelerator. Started in 2017, Luminate is the largest accelerator dedicated to advancing next-generation OPI companies. It issues worldwide calls for applicants.

Startups must be incorporated as a business, have a working prototype, and their management must be willing to work full time in the U.S. during the duration of the program, which is six months. Applicants go through a rigorous review process during which judges assess their viability.

Those who are accepted join a group of peer companies — called a cohort or batch — to become part of a rich, dynamic ecosystem dedicated to launching successful ventures. They receive financial, technical, and business support, and industry mentorship. Just as importantly, the startups work in a shared environment, which encourages them to collaborate and share best practices. In the end, they compete for follow-on funding, to continue progressing through all the necessary stages.

Business accelerators, as part of regional ecosystems dedicated to innova­tion, have tremendous potential to bring OPI ideas to life. Accelerator support empowers OPI entrepreneurs to build businesses, and in turn boost local and broader economies.

Sujatha Ramanujan

Published: November 2018
acceleratorLuminateOPIOpticscommercializationinnovationentrepreneurindustrycollaborationIndustry Insight

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