Luminate pivots amid the pandemic

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Last year, Rochester-based Ovitz was named the winner of Round II of the Luminate NY competition. 
(Photo: Luminate)

By now, Rochester and the optics, photonics and imaging community worldwide would have learned of a promising technology that outshone others at the Luminate NY Finals. Instead, they will discover the winner virtually in the fall because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The 2020 Luminate NY Finals will be held online in conjunction with OSA Frontiers in Optics + Laser Science APS/DLS Conference on Sept. 14 from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Ten finalists from around the world will showcase their innovations and compete for up to $2 million in follow-on funds.

A panel discussion at the event titled “Investing Early in Innovative Future Businesses” will include panelists such as Milton Chang, managing partner of Incubic Management; Linda Smith, president of CERES Technology Advisors Inc.; Darius Sankey, CEO of 3Discovered; and Don Golini, chair and founder of QED Technologies.

Administered as a program of NextCorps, Luminate—a startup accelerator focused on advancing next-generation optics, photonics and imaging-enabled companies—is in its third year. Organizers have been retooling to meet a new reality. It has extended its six-month program cycle to nine months and is mulling changes to programming formats for when the accelerator is ready to bring in its next cohort.

Sujatha Ramanujan

“We’re also exploring if we need to recruit more from the U.S. for the next cohort until there is a vaccine in place,” says Sujatha Ramanujan, director of Luminate. “While we haven’t made decisions yet on this, we recognize that there is an undeniable opportunity for startups in other countries to use Luminate to access resources in the U.S. remotely and launch U.S. operations here to extend their business and sales opportunities.”

This year’s virtual event could expand Luminate’s reach and generate further interest and awareness, she says.

The Rochester Beacon recently posed a few questions to Ramanujan on the impact of COVID-19 on the program. Her answers are below.

ROCHESTER BEACON: This has been an unusual year for everyone. How did the coronavirus outbreak impact Luminate? Did you have to alter the program? If so, in what ways?

SUJATHA RAMANUJAN: Yes. We were already in the process of moving some of our curriculum online a couple of months before the lockdown here in New York, so we had a structure set up to provide access to educational sessions and mentors. However, a component of Luminate is to provide opportunities to startups to pitch their businesses to potential funders, and to hold our Finals event in June, where the companies compete for follow-on funding. To accommodate setting these up within a virtual framework, we extended our six-month program cycle to nine months. We’re also moving the start date for recruitment for the next cohort later, which will be held in the fall, with selection of the new cohort in January. Then we’ll kick off cohort 4 in Q2 next year, instead of Q1.

ROCHESTER BEACON: One obvious change is that the Luminate Finals in 2020 will be held in the fall, as opposed to the summer in years past, and it will be virtual for a global audience. What does that entail? What is your team doing to ensure a successful event?

RAMANUJAN: This year we will have our pitch event at the Optical Society’s Frontiers in Optics + Laser Science (FiO+LS) annual conference. For the first time, OSA will be offering this conference free to attendees, who typically have come from around the world to learn, network and share the latest in optics, photonics and imaging. It’s also the first time OSA is featuring a pitch event as part of its show. This will allow us to reach a much broader, global audience and build awareness for what Luminate is trying to achieve in helping emerging companies commercialize technologies that can bring visionary solutions to a variety of industries. 

OSA has organized this year’s conference around two themes that leverage the intersection between science and applications—the end result is intended to illustrate the research within the technology. The first theme is Quantum Technologies (in conjunction with the OSA Quantum 2.0 Conference) and the other theme is Virtual Reality and Augmented Vision. To share insight on why it’s important to fund and support the movement of technologies out (of) the lab and into real-world applications, for the first time Luminate will host a panel discussion during its Finals 2020 event. This will feature members of Luminate’s advisory board who will speak to a number of different topics related to this.

Our Luminate staff has been working weekly with OSA’s team to coordinate activities. They’ve been wonderful partners by allowing us to maintain the integrity of our event, and by providing us with new promotional activities to ensure we attract a large audience. In years prior, approximately 600 registered for our physical event. We’re hoping to increase that audience significantly with the convenience and access afforded through virtual events. We’re also working with a local team in Rochester at CMI Communications that is helping us produce an online presence. There is a lot of work that has to be done for physical events, but we’re realizing as much (if not more) is required for virtual events. 

Right now, we’re filming 20 videos—half of our startups are here, the other half are located in other countries—which will be used during the event. We’re minimizing the risks involved with totally live events by having some aspects live and some prepackaged. We’re also creating a web-like presence that event attendees can come to access information about our startups, the panel, and the program, and be able to move seamlessly into the live event on Sept.14 when the countdown is complete. Right after the event, we’ll also have a breakout room where people can go to if they want to learn more about how to apply to the program—so this event, in essence, is also becoming a lead generation activity for us, which we didn’t do before.

ROCHESTER BEACON: What are some of the technologies in this cohort that the community can look forward to?

RAMANUJAN: This year’s cohort spans a variety of applications and is a true map to what is just around the corner. We have companies presenting quantum security, clean energy, free-space communications, and agriculture. In the medical domain there are companies presenting wound care, neonatal care, AR augmented surgical training, cataract surgery and rapid virus detection. Each concept represents an emerging technology and market, indicating trends and what the near future will offer.

ROCHESTER BEACON: As you look to the future and the next cohort, what did this year’s challenges teach you?

RAMANUJAN: COVID-19 presents a lot of unknowns. This impacts businesses from multiple perspectives and causes us to think differently in how we will need to deliver the program. For example: we recruit startups from all over the world. With travel and visa restrictions, they might not be able to take physical residency here for the six months where we immerse founders in programming. We’re exploring different delivery modalities, such as all instruction online, or a hybrid model if companies can get to Rochester.

Given this, we’re also exploring if we need to recruit more from the U.S. for the next cohort until there is a vaccine in place. While we haven’t made decisions yet on this, we recognize that there is an undeniable opportunity for startups in other countries to use Luminate to access resources in the U.S. remotely and launch U.S. operations here to extend their business and sales opportunities. Several in our portfolio have demonstrated this value: Think Biosolution has moved its headquarters to U.S, Haqean has moved to U.S. and Neurescence is now a U.S. entity.

We also have to recognize the challenges that COVID presents within certain industries, such as those serving the health care environment. Startups working on medical technologies will encounter delays in their ability to conduct clinical trials, due to the limited access to hospitals and care environments and priorities focused on pandemic initiatives. 

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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