Energy I-Corps program a springboard for one-time Argonne researcher turned entrepreneur

Chad Husko and Jonathan Logan had just started in the National Science Foundation I-Corps site program at the University of Chicago Polsky Center when Argonne National Laboratory posted the opportunity to gain a place in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy I-Corps training program.

Husko, who had worked at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials, said they needed to gain a “much deeper customer discovery experience.” So, they applied, were accepted and participated in Energy I-Corps from June to July 2018.

As a result, a spin-out company, Iris Light Technologies Inc., was created in August 2018 and continues to gain traction. The company provides innovative manufacturing solutions to create hybrid lasers with semiconductor production. It targets the rapidly growing silicon photonics industry. which is relevant to markets such as data communications and Cloud computing.

“The learning never stops,” said Husko, who is currently building Iris Light Technologies with the help of Argonne’s Chain Reaction Innovations program. “This immersive experience in Energy I-Corps helps scientists to understand how businesses think about products. In some sense, it’s a mini business degree with a focus on value proposition and product-market fit.”

The Energy I-Corps program pairs teams of researchers with industry mentors for an intensive two-month training program. The program is offered at Argonne and teaches researchers how to define the value of their technology, to identify their customers, to pitch the technology to those customers and to determine if there is a viable market for that technology.

Participation by Argonne researchers in Energy I-Corps promotes greater impact of Argonne research, and the skills the researchers gain are in line with Argonne’s efforts to sustain and grow a world-class community of talent.

Twice a year, Energy I-Corps accepts applications and project proposals from teams consisting of two people from national laboratories and their industry mentor. If accepted, that team is awarded $75,000 to be used for its time and expenses during the course of the program. Expenses include travel and hotel costs to attend the opening and closing workshops, meeting customers, and fees when attending conferences related to the project.

Since Energy I-Corps’ inception in 2015, dozens of teams from 11 national labs have worked with dozen of industry mentors, according to the Energy I-Corps website.

While learning new business skills are helpful to participants as they learn to pitch their products, knowing how to talk to a potential sponsor is useful throughout the participant’s career, said David McCallum, new program capture manager at Argonne.

“After graduation, every team has expressed their great satisfaction with the program,” McCallum said. “It definitely takes them out of their comfort zone, especially during the customer discovery phase, where they have to talk to many people they don’t know. But the benefits will be immense and it is well worth their time and effort.”

The entire program brings surprises left and right, said Husko.

“We learn how and where science can be useful by starting with a vision. But that vision may evolve into something we may not expect,” said Husko. “If the ultimate goal is to create a product that can be useful, then of course, there are cases where the economics has to be considered. It’s better to discover this early by participating in a program like this where we have a common goal and can talk directly with other professionals, rather than raising money for a project and then trying to figure it out years later.”

Husko said Energy I-Corps was crucial in deciding how to progress with Iris Light Technologies and how to target the rapidly growing silicon photonics industry.

“There are small changes one can make to experiments and scientific direction that can lead to significant differences to utility for industrial applications,” said Husko. “What specifications will an industrial user need for our lasers? And there is a difference between an end user versus a customer that pays. In some cases, it’s the same person; in others, it’s not. For example, where do we sit in a value chain? This tells you who exactly finds your science or technology of interest.”

While Husko continues to work at Iris Light Technologies as CEO and is in the second cohort of Chain Reaction Innovations, moving his startup company closer to market readiness.

Logan has since joined another company with Argonne roots, Alcorix Co.

By Anna Marie Tomczyk

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