From Lab to Fab, Commercialization at Georgia Tech Makes its Mark

The Georgia Institute of Technology fully embraced its evolving role as an entrepreneurial hub when it created a new dual-position, vice president of commercialization and chief commercialization officer, and then named Raghupathy “Siva” Sivakumar to fill it.

A computer engineering professor who helped start three technology companies and launched a successful student entrepreneurship program, Sivakumar feels well equipped for the role he took on during the fall semester in 2021. And along with the title came a challenging mission from Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera.

“The plan is to make Georgia Tech the number one commercialization campus in the country,” Sivakumar said. “We know that technology is important for delivering value in the real world, and that’s where we have a tremendous advantage. Yes, we have room to grow. But all of the ingredients are here.”

Those ingredients include 3,500 faculty members, thousands of Ph.D. students, more than $1 billion in research awards, and a wide-ranging suite of commercialization-focused programs (more than 30) that can seem overwhelming at first to the fledgling entrepreneur or start-up – programs such as VentureLab, the Advanced Technology Development Center, and the popular student-focused business startup program, CREATE-X, to name just a few. 

These programs and resources are helping to foster a new generation of successful technology entrepreneurs from the ranks of Georgia Tech’s faculty and students.

Wellspring of Commercial Success

LaVonda Brown developed her company, EyeGage, based around the robotic eye-tracking technology she developed as a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech. When she needed help putting the pieces of the entrepreneurial puzzle together, she turned to the Georgia Tech MBA program in the Scheller College of Business and CREATE-X.

“It dawned on me in business school that a computer can tell when someone is under the influence [of alcohol or drugs],” Brown said of her aha moment. “Then we were lucky to be accepted into the CREATE-X program. That gave us everything we could possibly need to know to start our company. That’s where I learned one of the most important things about building a solid business model – customer discovery. It’s been critical for us because it helped us pivot to a new customer segment.”

Now focused on alcohol and drug detection, EyeGage is based in the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC). The company recently launched its first product, a free app that lets users know if they’re sober enough to drive, offering a red “Do Not Drive” warning if not, with a link to transportation services. 

Georgia Tech’s commercialization ecosystem has also been the wellspring of successful ventures in recent years. For example, there’s Greenlight, a startup offering debit cards and investing for kids, doubled its valuation in a year, to $2.3 billion; and Sila Nanotechnologies, Inc., a next-generation battery  materials company, which received Series F funding early last year, boosting its valuation to more than $3.3 billion.

Turning Ideas into Reality 

Since it was founded in 1980, the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech has created a global buzz for how it has nurtured technological entrepreneurship, even being named twice to Forbes magazine’s list of “Incubators Changing the World.” With 40 years of experience, ATDC has helped hundreds of startups find their way to the market.

“When you look at the whole ecosystem at Georgia Tech, you start as a student in CREATE-X, as a professor or postdoc you have VentureLab, focused on commercializing research from Georgia Tech labs, and then you have us at the far end of the spectrum,” said John Avery, the serial entrepreneur who became ATDC’s director in 2018. “We are a Georgia Tech entity that will work with entrepreneurs any place in Georgia.”

Based in Midtown Atlanta and part of the Enterprise Innovation Institute, ATDC has offices throughout the state and currently works with about 500 companies at various tiers, making use of staff coaches and volunteer mentors – most of whom have first-hand startup experience. Companies can also rent space through ATDC, which provides access to the technological and human resources of a top research university, as well as investment opportunities.

“Far and away, the best part of the ATDC or any incubator experience is the ability to connect with other companies who are going through what we’re going through,” said Cassidy Wang, CEO of Ethos Medical, which is developing a low-cost needle guidance system. The company has roots in Georgia Tech’s Capstone program, then grew a sense of direction in the CREATE-X program.

“The startup journey can be lonely and isolating, so it’s incredibly helpful to meet and be surrounded by people who are dealing with the same problems,” Wang said. “It’s hard to put a value on that.”

Sila founder and CEO Gleb Yushin wholeheartedly agrees.

“Having forums where young, inspiring entrepreneurs can meet each other, share stories, discuss challenges, meet successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and lawyers, and discover what worked or didn’t work in the past, and why – this is all very critical,” said Yushin, professor in Tech’s School of Materials Science and Engineering.

Creating Opportunities

At a research university with more than $1 billion in research funding and an average of about 300 invention disclosures a year, the Office of Technology Licensing at Georgia Tech stays busy, according to its director, Terry Bray. About 25% of the invention disclosures that come through his door will eventually be licensed, putting Georgia Tech on the same level as Stanford and M.I.T., which means, “we’re on par with some of the best tech transfer operations in the country,” Bray said. 

“But that means about 75% don’t get licensed – those are solutions in search of a commercially relevant problem,” he added. “My goal is to get as much of the technology as I can into the hands of people and companies that can turn it into products.”

Established tech firms looking for the next big innovation or students seeking new ways to leverage existing technology can take advantage of any of the licenses that Tech holds. And that’s exactly what is happening at Georgia Tech in the annual Startup Hackathon, which Sivakumar launched in April 2021. Georgia Tech makes intellectual property from its portfolio available to students, “to see if they could come up with a commercialization plan,” said Sivakumar. Over the course of a weekend, student teams propose one or more commercial applications for Georgia Tech patents and deliver video pitches of their ideas.

Winning teams earn cash prizes, which Sivakumar sees as a worthwhile investment in two of Georgia Tech’s most valuable resources – students and the commercialization ecosystem.

“Faculty and alumni or companies – these have been the traditional agents of commercialization,” Sivakumar said. “We wondered about finding other agents of commercialization and realized there was a third group – students. Our students already are entrepreneurially minded. They’ve demonstrated they can build world-class companies. Now they’re demonstrating that they can be agents of commercialization.”