Start-up class of 2020 continues to innovate

Greg Blackman asks Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of the Luminate business accelerator, how its most recent cohort of young companies is coping during Covid-19


uminate has invested $1m in Boston, US-based SunDensity for its photonics coating technology that improves the

energy efficiency of solar panels. SunDensity is one of the latest cohort of optics, photonics and imaging start- ups participating in Luminate’s business accelerator programme in Rochester, New York.

Te accelerator is a six- to nine-month

scheme providing mentoring, training, capital – Luminate places an initial investment of $100,000 in each company it accepts, taking 10 companies per year – and access to the optics and photonics network in Rochester, so these early-stage companies can scale their businesses. Luminate announced its investment

plans during Te Optical Society’s (OSA) Frontiers in Optics and Laser Science virtual conference in September, where all of Luminate’s latest cohort of 10 start-ups showcased their technologies. Te Optical Society’s CEO, Elizabeth

Rogan, said: ‘Supporting and nurturing innovative start-ups willing to push the envelope of discovery is vital for our scientific community,’ adding that ‘the partnership with Luminate is a powerful reminder of one of OSA’s core values, innovation.’ Covid-19 has had an impact on the

Luminate programme this year, as it has had on everything, although Dr Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of the accelerator, told Imaging and Machine Vision Europe that the response from the companies following lockdown has been really positive. Until Covid-19 hit, the main criteria for

selecting companies for the accelerator were: is the start-up the correct type of

Sujatha Ramanujan

‘We saw a lot of stress in CEOs and entrepreneurs; it’s a hard enough job as it is’

business?; can Luminate assist in its development?; and can the team move to and work in Rochester for six months? Luminate, established in 2018, has 30

companies on its books. Tese include its first cohort winner, Double Helix Optics, which makes phase masks for high- resolution 3D imaging, potentially for industrial inspection; Bounce Imaging, producers of a 360º camera; and Circle Optics, another 360º imaging company. Its current cohort includes: Akknatek, a German firm that makes an optical imaging system for inspecting intraocular lenses; and Haqean, which has developed an anti- counterfeiting solution for pharmaceutical manufacturers. When lockdowns started happening, many companies working with Luminate


in Rochester decided to return home. Ramanujan said: ‘I was worried. I thought, did we just put $100,000 into a company that just scampered off into the sunset?’ Ramanujan found that the teams were

really engaged, possibly because they had more time during lockdown, but also because they wanted to get the most out of the programme. ‘[Lockdown] is a difficult environment for companies to raise money and build a network,’ Ramanujan said, because online meetings don’t necessarily lead to the large investments needed to advance a business, or to find manufacturing partners when the lab is off limits. Luminate was able to give the companies help here, which made the programme click harder, she said. With the initial investment of $100,000

in place, Luminate works with the start- ups on a business plan, a financial model with a good customer discovery plan and execution model, as well as a marketing plan and other aspects. At the end of that period, Luminate makes an additional $1m to $2m worth of investment in some of the companies, although it is limited to how much follow-on work it can do. It also g

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