So You Won the SPIE Startup Challenge. What Happened Next?

A panel of past SPIE Startup Challenge winners shared their post-win paths to further develop their technologies and move their products to market
06 February 2020
By Gwen Weerts
Past SPIE Startup Challenge Winners
Past SPIE Startup Challenge Winners discuss their successes and challenges post-win

The SPIE Startup Challenge marked its tenth year at Photonics West 2020. In addition to a new group of entrepreneurs competing for the first, second, and third prizes, past winners gathered together to share their progress since participating in the SPIE Startup Challenge. Leslie Kimerling, CEO and co-founder of Double-Helix Optics won first place in 2016; Matthias Wagner, Co-founder and CTO of Cellino Biotech won first place in 2017; and Cather Simpson, founder of Orbis Diagnostics won third place in 2018. Jason Eichenholz, co-founder and CTO of lidar company Luminar Technologies moderated the panel.

Eichenholz started by asking the panelists what the SPIE startup challenge did for their fledgling companies. For Kimerling, it was a very useful step in building awareness about her company's technology. "SPIE was a great win for us. I think SPIE helped people be aware of us. We were then contacted by Luminate, and we were invited to participate in the first year, 2017, and that led us to being invited to pitch to Luminate, then being selected by Luminate as one of the 10 in their accelerator. We ultimately won the grand prize, which led to an investment series A. It all started here."

Simpson thought that their best takeaway (in addition to the prize money) was confidence in their path. "Coming to a large conference like this and walking away with a prize gave us some confidence to move forward. Getting that kind of prize added a lot of credibility about the technology that were on the primary industry side," said Simpson.

In the case of Cellino Biotech, two people who were then graduate students pitched the idea, while Wagner mentored them. "Winning the competition made [the grad students who presented] really serious about starting a company. About a month later I started building prototypes and working with them on business concepts. I think without a win here, they might have done something different with their lives," he said.

Eichenholz noted that no matter how great an idea sounds, real customers are the best litmus test. Who were their first customers? Wagner and Simpson both admitted that they don't yet have their first customers, but they're not worried, because they're on the right path to deliver a product that their target customers will really want. "We've talked with dozens or hundreds of customers, and we know what they're looking for, and it's a matter of building what they need. We are planning to go into partnerships about a year from now with our first customers," said Wagner.

Simpson explained the unique challenge of her technology, which will have a customer who is not the actual end user of their product. Orbis Diagnostics provides in-line diagnostics for dairies to measure protein, fat, somatic cell, and progesterone. While the farmers are the end users, their customers are ultimately dairy co-ops, and their path to market is through one of the dairy equipment companies. Although they also don't yet have a customer, "we worked out a sophisticated picture of what we need to develop and how. We're working out the business model along with the science," said Simpson.

Double Helix Optics, on the other hand, is the farthest down the path to market, thanks in large part to their participation in the Luminate accelerator program. Their first customer was a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, someone who worked with the co-founders. "We had talked to him about what we were doing, and he worked with us while we were prototyping, so that when it was available for sale, he wanted it in his lab, with his team," said Kimerling.

The perspectives shared by these entrepreneurs illustrated the uneven paths of starting a new business, building a team, finding investors, and finding customers. They all spoke of experiencing setbacks punctuated by thrilling successes - like winning the SPIE Startup Challenge - that gave them confidence and tools to move forward.

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