From Breakthrough to Enterprise: Two Entrepreneurs Find Their Places as Activate Fellows at Cornell’s Praxis Center


Alexa Schmitz Ph.D ’18, co-founder and CEO of REEgenand Austin Hickman Ph.D. ’21, co-founder and CEO of soctera, have turned their Cornell-based research into companies that could transform sustainable energy infrastructure and next-generation communications, respectively. The two scientists are now transforming into CEOs capable of growing and sustaining a company. The Praxis Center for Venture Developmentone of Cornell’s campus incubators, and Enablean entrepreneurial scholarship program, provide essential support.

Schmitz and Hickman are the 2022 Cohort Activate Fellows in the Enable Anywhere Community, and their companies are both based at the Praxis Center. This year marks the first crossover between the Fellowship and a Cornell campus incubator. Activate and Praxis share synergistic missions to empower scientists to bring their breakthrough technologies to market.

The two-year Activate Fellowship supports early-career science entrepreneurs in every way: by providing a generous stipend, travel allowance, and health insurance; $100,000 in research funding and access to at least $100,000 in additional flexible capital; as well as mentorship, community and intensive training.

The Praxis Center, Cornell’s incubator focused on high-tech companies, provides a physical base with the facilities and equipment necessary for high-tech innovation as well as mentorship and an integrated connection to the ecosystem of Cornell research.

Robert M. Scharf, administrative academic director at the Praxis Center, sees the value of paired resources. “For these start-ups and their CEOs, Activate’s support with Praxis’ incubation program is a ‘best of both worlds’ environment that dramatically accelerates the commercialization of breakthrough technologies,” said Scharf.

Schmitz’s technology addresses the environmental impact of sourcing rare earth elements (REE), which are essential for sustainable energy infrastructure. A biological engineer with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology and Plant Microbe Biology from Cornell, she developed rare earth element bioextraction technology using engineered microbes as a postdoctoral research associate working with Buz Barstow (Cornell Engineering) and in as a postdoctoral fellow for the Cornell Energy Systems Institute.

“The Praxis Center is a great fit for REEgen, primarily because it allows the company to remain on the Cornell campus while retaining intellectual property rights,” she said. “This, combined with the Activate Anywhere program, keeps us connected to the Barstow Lab where the core technologies were invented and where Sean Medin, my co-founder, is still completing his PhD. and reduce the risks of separations technology.

She added, “On a personal level, I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep the business in Ithaca, New York – a place I love and call home.”

Austin Hickman, who earned his Ph.D. from Cornell in Electrical and Computer Engineering, develops millimeter-wave power amplifiers on an aluminum nitride platform for next-generation communication systems. His company, Soctera, aims to extend the reach of radar and telecom network signals.

“When it came time to go from college student to startup founder, staying at my alma mater wasn’t just the easy choice — it was the best,” he said. “There is a very rich history of high frequency electronics at Cornell and I hope Soctera can add to that.”

As REEgen and Soctera take shape, the United States is positioning itself for a new era of manufacturing, marked by the recent passage of the CHIPS and Science Act. Nurturing startups like REEgen and Soctera is an upstream investment in the future of semiconductor supply chains.

Scharf represents the Praxis Center on the American Semiconductor Innovation Coalition. “It is essential that we restore the viability of the startup ecosystem for semiconductors, as it has been the source of vitality for so many other industries in the United States.”

“Praxis is supporting four early-stage semiconductor startups and three new material recycling/sourcing startups that are beginning their entrepreneurial journey,” Scharf said. “If all of these companies are successful in the long term, a significant improvement in the outlook for semiconductor supply chain resilience would result.”

Schmitz and Hickman are part of the first Activate Anywhere cohort. The Activate Anywhere community allows fellows to be based in research facilities across the United States – while still being part of Activate’s tight-knit network, including communities of residence in Berkeley, Boston, and New York.

“Scholars in the Activate Anywhere community have incredibly strong ties to each other and to Activate Scholars from all of our communities,” said Hannah Murnen, CEO of Activate Anywhere. “It’s fantastic to see how much the guys support each other, despite the physical distance between them.”

Since 2015, Activate has supported nearly 150 science innovators, who have launched 106 companies. Collectively, Activate-backed companies have raised over $1 billion in follow-on funding and created over 1,100 high-tech jobs in the United States.

Activate is currently accepting applications for the 2023 cohort in its communities of Berkeley, Boston, New York or Anywhere. The deadline is October 31, 2022.


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