DeepTech Ecosystem Profile — Activate

Activate shapes the pipeline of DeepTech entrepreneurs. The organization forges strong scientists with entrepreneurial traits into startup founders with IP-driven businesses. 

About Activate
‘For scientists on a mission’

Activate operates at the earliest stages of an advanced technology startup’s lifecycle. It empowers scientists to become ‘DeepTech’ entrepreneurs, reinvent our world, and address climate change and other global challenges by bringing their research to commercial markets. The organization operates the ‘Activate Fellowship,’ which provides the funding, technical support, networking, community, and time that these scientists need at the outset of their entrepreneurial journey. 

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Activate operates between government and the private sector. It works as both a facilitator and enabler in the DeepTech startup ecosystem. The organization partners with major research universities and national laboratories to offer its fellows access to key lab facilities, specialized equipment, and testing environments that can rarely be accessed elsewhere. These partnerships, combined with Activate’s fellowship funding and mentorship, help scientists further refine their technologies and translate them into scalable businesses. 

Activate currently operates two locations: Activate Berkeley — in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Cyclotron Road Division and UC Berkeley; and Activate Boston — in partnership with MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the UMass Venture Development Center, and other local organizations. The organization intends to expand to 8 locations across the United States in the next five years, in order to support up to 100 fellows each year.

“One of the biggest challenges we will face in Tough Tech in this next decade is encouraging more scientists and engineers to take the leap from lab to company founding. Activate has been a crucial organization in smoothing this transition for so many talented entrepreneurs and broadening the pool that will get the opportunity to bring their ideas to market. Our future looks brighter because of the program and community they’ve created.” 

— Katie Rae, CEO and Managing Partner at The Engine

How Activate works

Activate recruits promising individuals whose research has the potential to transform the world’s physical infrastructure and industries, with a focus on ClimateTech and decarbonization (~80% of fellows). These aspiring scientist-entrepreneurs, who are often at the early stages of company formation, apply to participate in Activate’s two year fellowship, and face a rigorous and competitive vetting process to be selected. The organization collaborates with over 100 experts to winnow the applicant pool, filtering for the best scientists and engineers with the most attractive industrial technology innovations. The program has a 7% acceptance rate, with past and current fellows hailing from across the U.S. and beyond.

Those selected become Activate Fellows. Fellows receive an annual living stipend of $80,000 to $110,000 as well as a health insurance allowance. This enables them to focus on their projects full-time. Each project also receives $100,000 of research facility support at the host laboratory. Funding comes in the form of non-dilutive fellowships, rather than equity investments, and the fellows’ IP is unencumbered. Through Activate’s intensive two year program, fellows grow as leaders, mature their ideas, and learn what it takes to build a viable, scalable business. The program also regularly connects fellows with investors and industry experts to facilitate customer feedback, technology and business pivots, investments, and commercial partnerships. 

As fellows look to transition their startups beyond Activate and scale their technologies, the organization helps them identify additional funding from VCs, corporations, and government. The organization regularly explores new ways to unlock capital for its founders.

 With Activate’s support, nearly all fellows to date have achieved first financing and key product milestones as they work to commercialize their technology and build profitable businesses. 

How is Activate funded?

As a 501(c)(3), Activate leverages a mixture of government, philanthropic, and corporate grants and sponsorships to cover both ongoing operating costs and the Fellowship stipends. The Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, DARPA, and the California Energy Commission are key government funders, while The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and Breakthrough Energy are among a growing list of philanthropic sponsors. Supporters are motivated by the organization’s commitment to creating more DeepTech entrepreneurs, its emphasis on ClimateTech, and the potential for fellows to unleash massively transformative businesses on the world. 

Case studies

To date, Activate has worked with 83 fellows as they build the foundations for new DeepTech startups. A few highlights include: 

  • Cuberg has pioneered the development of light-weight, energy-dense, and safe lithium metal batteries, setting records in performance and a generational improvement in energy density and safety compared to the best lithium-ion batteries. The technology is a complete drop-in solution for a wide range of zero-emissions electromobility applications, including electric flight. Led by Activate Fellow Richard Wang, Cuberg had raised $10 million in funding from Boeing HorizonX Ventures, the U.S. Army, the National Science Foundation, and a number of Activate partners, including the California Energy Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy, and CalSEED.
  • Radical Plastics has developed a patented technology that involves blending conventional plastics with a proprietary, naturally occurring catalyst. When properly compounded, this catalyst has the ability to render regular plastics biodegradable in the natural environment. Items made from the Radical Plastics compound perform just like regular plastics. But if they end up in the environment, the free radical catalyst converts the plastic into a material that microbes recognize as food. Founded by Yelena Kann, a Ph.D. chemist with 25 years of industrial experience both in large plastic manufacturers and startups, and Kristin Taylor, a plastics engineer who has served in technical, sales, business development and management roles in several multinational, Radical Plastics has raised $2.4M in a mix of government and private funding.
  • Opus 12 makes products from recycled emissions and renewable electrons, instead of from fossil fuels. Co-founders and Activate alumni Etosha Cave and Kendra Kuhl developed a device (based on their metal catalyst research while earning their PhDs at Stanford University) that recycles CO₂ into cost-competitive chemicals and fuels and can be bolted onto any source of CO₂ emissions, using only water and electricity as inputs. Its mission is to reduce the carbon footprint of the world’s heaviest emitters while creating a new revenue stream from what is discarded today as a waste product. Opus 12 has attracted funding from the U.S. DOE, NSF, NASA, Shell, SoCalGas, and top-tier venture investors. In 2020, Opus 12 unveiled the world’s first car part made from CO2 with Mercedes-Benz and will ship CO2-neutral jet fuel to the US Air Force this year.
  • Aralez Bio provides an efficient, sustainable alternative to chemical manufacturing by engineering enzymes to produce non-natural chemicals. Its platform generates chemical building blocks called noncanonical amino acids that support the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, biological probes, cosmetics, flavors, and fragrances at a fraction of the time incumbent systems need, and with half of the energy inputs. Co-founded by Activate Fellow Christina Boville, Nobel laureate Frances Arnold, and David Romney, Aralez Bio has raised more than $3M from government funders and private investors.

Key people

Activate is a growing team of 24 people and counting. Each works to further the visions of the Activate Fellows and ensure the long-term success of their research and business. A few key individuals include: 

  • Ilan Gur, CEO of Activate. In 2014, Ilan founded Cyclotron Road, a division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where Activate’s fellowship model originated. He previously co-founded Seeo, a venture funded startup commercializing a novel ultra high energy density battery platform (acquired by Bosch). Ilan has also worked as a Program Director at ARPA-E, worked on technology development and commercialization at NSF, and taught at the Haas School of Business. He has a PhD in Materials Science from the University of California Berkeley.
  • Karin Lion, Chief Growth Officer at Activate. Karin joined Activate in 2020 to help strengthen its revenue model and partnership strategy, including cultivating revenue and non-revenue partnerships, attracting new fellows to the program, and facilitating the alumni network of nearly 100 fellows. She brings a diverse background in government and NGOs, and spent nearly a decade with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Karin holds an MBA from Haas, a master’s in international studies from George Washington University, and a BA from the College of William and Mary.
  • Matt Price, President and COO at Activate. Matt is a key driver of Activate’s growth strategy and brings a wealth of experience in venture capital, R&D, and business development. Previously, he was a principal at Nth Power and worked at a number of clean energy startups, including Bloom Energy. He holds an MBA from Hass as well as a BS in material science from Northwestern.

How VCs, LPs, and other ecosystem players can engage

Activate is always looking to collaborate with more partners — whether for corporate pilots, fellow mentorship, new programs, investment, or philanthropic endeavors. 

VCs and LPs are welcome to meet any fellows working in sectors or technologies of particular interest and are encouraged to engage with Activate here

“Activate supports scientists who seek a different path, outside of academia. As a PhD chemist, turned entrepreneur, turned investor, I know how difficult that journey can be for technical founders. By fostering science entrepreneurs whose innovations are aimed at solving climate change and other massive challenges, Activate plays a vital role in our ecosystem. Deep tech investors would be wise to engage with Activate Fellows.”

— Carmichael Roberts, Founder & Managing Partner at Material Impact and investment committee member at Breakthrough Energy Ventures

2021 Objectives 

Activate is ramping up for a busy sixth year. The organization is eyeing new fellowship locations, developing new research and sponsor partnerships, and working to expand support for fellows through an aligned investment vehicle and improved educational resources.  

But to fully meet the demand and immense opportunity for supporting entrepreneurial science at a scale, CEO Ilan Gur envisions a fellowship network on a national scale, administered by Activate and other like-minded organizations. Along with Cheryl Martin of Harwich Partners and Fernando Gómez-Baquero of Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, Ilan co-authored a Day One Project policy proposal for a national entrepreneurial fellowship that would “leverage our nation’s investments in science to drive national prosperity, security, and global competitiveness.”

“The cost and difficulty of launching startups in the hard sciences create an enormous bottleneck for entrepreneurs,” says Gur. “By reducing those barriers, we can unleash an army of brilliant scientists who are hungry to turn their cutting-edge research into products and companies that can reinvent the world.”