The RSI Rocket Fund program helps young companies grow their businesses through a supportive community of collaborators providing educational and financial support
Advancing scientific breakthroughs made in the laboratory towards new technology demonstrations is the critical step in addressing the challenges of climate change and sustainability. RSI and Caltech have a well-established track record of successfully converting fundamental scientific discoveries into viable commercial technologies and products. Over the years,the Rocket Fund, headed by RSI's Director of Entrepreneurial Programs Stephanie Yanchinski, has grown to be an integral part of the Resnick Sustainability Institute, supporting clean technology entrepreneurship with the underlying goal of having significant impact on sustainability. Yanchinski says:
"As climate change is accelerating, I see the RSI fostering the kind of camaraderie and the powerful idea exchange that will be absolutely vital, if we are going to solve sustainability challenges at the speed we need to avert a crisis."
The Rocket Fund has its origins in a US Department of Energy program, launched in 2011, called FLOW that focused on helping students start new cleantech companies. Seven years of overseeing FLOW exposed a problem that many new technologies, especially cleantech devices, face - the lack of funding to support deployment and translation of early technology toward mature, real-word demonstrations that can then attract investment. Met with this challenge, Yanchinski and her team saw a unique opportunity to partner with six California utilities, as well as the family fund Futures Unbound (formerly the Moxie Foundation), to start a new program that is now known as Rocket Fund. Launched in 2015 the program grew to include other partners, including investors, and the team has worked with and mentored close to 1,000 young entrepreneurs.
"What the Rocket Fund does is provide smart grants, to be able to build that first commercial prototype," says Yanchinski. Once technology is validated, the young companies are then able to attract further investments to grow and become independent. In the past year, Rocket Fund saw the number of applications rise to 140 high-quality, strong, and creative proposals. When asked about how well the Rocket Fund has done, Yanchinski said:
"Since 2015, we have made over $1M in awards. The 30 companies that we have funded have gone on to raise more than $85M in follow-on funding, in the form of either investment, sales and services, or big grants. To date, 29 companies are still in business – this is an astonishing record, given the fact that they're so early. Out of that group, we have awarded $255K to 5 Caltech companies, and they have leveraged such early support to secure over $10M in further funding."
The summary of awardees can be found on the Rocket Fund website and includes start-ups working on energy efficiency and storage, green chemistry, sensor technology, and clean transportation. One of the recent examples of the Rocket Fund awards include a grant to a start-up called Weave Grid, Inc. that is employing machine learning to access the impact of the zero-emission, electric vehicles (EVs) on the electric grid. As California and the rest of the world are moving away from internal combustion engines towards cleaner EV transportation, the start-up's approach of bringing together the energy grid data and state-of-the-art computation is accelerating development of the clean, reliable transportation infrastructure critically needed to address climate change.
Along with Weave Grid Inc., there are several other start-ups that tackle EV, clean cement, battery, and PV technologies. For example, PowerFlex Systems, an EV charging and grid management start-up from the laboratory of Prof. Steven Low, benefitted from two Rocket Fund awards that helped develop its technology and was recently acquired by EDF North American Renewables. Another example is ETC Solar, a company established to explore solar research innovations from research led by Prof. Harry Atwater, used two Rocket Fund awards to develop its technology into products.
Rocket Fund also supported companies co-founded by former Resnick Fellows. Brimstone Energy, a venture launched by Cody Finke (Ph.D. 2019), started with a concept seeded by his Caltech research. Armed with a Rocket Fund grant, Cody built his "green cement" technology, and in 2020 received a first investment. Christina Boville's company Aralez Bio. is working on sustainable alternatives to chemical synthesis through engineering novel enzymes. Raymond Weitekamp is a co-founder of Cypris Materials Inc., a company developing heat reflective and paintable polymeric coatings that aim to improve energy efficiency of building materials, such as wood, plastics, glass, and fabrics, and provide green alternatives to toxic pigments and dyes.
The success of the Rocket Fund program is made possible by the dedicated leadership of Stephanie Yanchinski. A native of Canada and a trained scientist with a professional history of successfully helping launch technology companies, Stephanie moved to Pasadena about 20 years ago, when she created a nonprofit organization called Entretech to help Caltech start-ups establish their businesses. Since joining the Resnick Sustainability Institute, she has worked closely with graduate students and on occasion with faculty on starting cleantech companies as well as the Caltech Office of Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnerships. She also ran the Caltech Entrepreneurs Forum, an annual program featuring monthly panels with innovative industry leaders. When working with Caltech students and entrepreneurial-minded faculty on sustainability and cleantech business ideas, Yanchinski discovered that what motivated them most was the promise of a positive impact that their companies will have, and not necessarily the financial benefits that these endeavors may bring.
What she has also learned at Caltech is that "entrepreneurship actually embraces a much broader concept than just starting the company." At RSI entrepreneurship means thinking about sustainability problems (e.g., as energy storage, production of biodegradable plastics, removal of excess green-house gases) by identifying and developing critical and creative solutions and pathways that will lead to resilient new technologies that can help mitigate and remedy the effects of human activity. When working with Caltech entrepreneurs, Yanchinski says, "you cannot overstate how incredibly imaginative and full of energy they are." She shares their passion and is looking forward to supporting them through the Rocket Fund and other entrepreneurship programs and future close collaboration with RSI's Center for Translation Science and Engineering (lead by Prof. John Dabiri).
Stephanie believes that "everybody on campus who feels strongly about sustainability will find a pathway to achieving their personal mission through what the RSI can offer - obviously, top research, but also translational activities, including entrepreneurship."