(This story appeared originally in the Cornell Chronicle on Feb. 12, 2021. It was written by David Nutt.)
Nearly two years after launching, the Praxis Center for Venture Development is reconfiguring its structure to reflect the growth of engineering startups at Cornell and their specialized needs.
The center is differentiating into two thematically focused branches, with the Praxis Center for Engineering and Physical Sciences remaining in the current space in Duffield Hall, and the Praxis Center for Enterprise Software now based in nearby Rhodes Hall.
The space in Rhodes Hall was renovated last year and is now occupied by a pair of software startups: Ava Labs and Exotanium. The success of both companies has demonstrated the effectiveness of the center’s model as it helps Cornell researchers turn their innovative ideas into thriving businesses.
The expansion allows the center’s five startups that have an engineering and physical sciences bent to remain in close proximity to the technical resources offered by Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility (CNF) and Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) in Duffield Hall.
“Rhodes Hall is an office environment, so it really fits the sort of analytical things that don’t require any testing or laboratories,” said Robert Scharf ’77, Praxis’ director. “This lets us keep the physical and engineering sciences teams in Duffield, where the laboratories, model shops and testing facilities are concentrated. It has no effect on the productivity or the effectiveness of the facility for the software teams.”
The Praxis Center opened in March 2019 with the goal of supporting engineering and physical science startups through mentorship while also boosting business development in New York state. The new structure will allow Praxis to better connect these companies with more specialized mentors and advisory groups who can help them later on to focus their products, perfect their pitches and plot their next steps.
“There are different business models and advisory roles that fit each specific kind of venture,” Scharf said. “We certainly wouldn’t want a software company talking to someone with deep experience in chemical manufacturing, where there’s really a low level of relevance of the possible interactions. This will help us attract the right kind of advisors, mentors and guides to each branch, because now they’ll have a much more distinctive identity and a clear reason for participating.”
That mentorship was instrumental for helping get Exotanium off the ground, said CEO Hakim Weatherspoon, associate professor of computer science, who founded the company in 2018 with Robbert van Renesse, professor of computer science; and postdoctoral researcher Zhiming Shen, Ph.D. ’17.
Exotanium’s software enables businesses to reliably run their applications on servers in the cloud at low-cost using cheap unreliable servers. When these “spot” servers become unavailable, Exotanium’s technology automatically migrates these application servers to stable environments without any interruption, a kind of high-tech game of Whac-A-Mole that can slash a company’s cloud-computing costs by an order of magnitude.
The startup joined the Praxis Center in fall 2019, and last year raised more than $1 million in pre-seed funding, with another round of seed funding planned for this year. Last fall, Exotanium conducted a successful pilot demonstration for software company Autodesk, Inc., and they are now working on establishing a commercial relationship.
“Praxis has been critical for us to evolve from three people who are professors and a Ph.D. to three people and a company that is very successful in the market,” Weatherspoon said. “And Praxis is critical to Cornell. Cornell is a great idea generator, but a lot of scientists are not trained in business. To have a successful business, you need a place like the Praxis Center. I don’t know where we’d be without something like that.”
Exotanium has grown to include five full-time employees – four of whom are based in Ithaca – as well as three part-time employees and several interns and consultants.
The Praxis Center has also helped provide a “center of gravity” to keep businesses like Exotanium in New York state, when so many software companies are lured to big tech meccas like Silicon Valley, Seattle and Boston.
Exotanium’s neighbor in Rhodes Hall, Ava Labs, was one of the Praxis Center’s first clients and is now the largest. The company has grown to be an international operation, with a total of 72 employees, the majority of whom work in the company headquarters in Brooklyn, which opened in July 2019.
“We went from being a nascent company that just had one idea, which was mostly undefined, to a small seed company that receives funding from the giants of Silicon Valley, all the way to being a company that has launched a network that has billions of dollars’ worth of value in it,” said Ava Labs co-founder and CEO Emin Gün Sirer, associate professor of computer science and co-director of the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts.
Ava Labs’ flagship technology is Avalanche, an open-source platform for verifying and securing blockchain networks. In July, the company sold 72 million AVAX tokens, its form of digital currency, raising $42 million in its first public sale.
The company now has a system that is storing $2.2 billion worth of value from thousands of users on five continents.
Ava Lab has eight employees in Ithaca. While the company is nearing the day it will move out of Rhodes Hall to make room for new startups – five developing companies are currently in the pipeline, according to Scharf – Ava Labs will always have a deep connection with the Praxis Center, Sirer said.
“Every relationship changes. I feel like we spent our infancy at Praxis. And when we were in our teenage years and needed to prove ourselves, we went down to where the big folks are in New York City,” Sirer said. “Now, I would like to retain our connection to Praxis and pay forward our dues. I would love to help them in the future, whether it’s in the form of advising other financial technology startups or helping others connect with people, whatever it might take.”
To that end, Scharf is looking to develop a new mentorship model for companies that are no longer tenants at the center but maintain a relationship with the university.
The Praxis Center is also strengthening its ties with CNF. Both groups now share the same director of operations, Ron Olson, and program safety officer, Phil Infante, consolidating the technical support on which so many engineering startups depend.
“We’re centralizing the administrative functions, and that’s going to be a productive thing for everyone,” Scharf said. “The synergies of all these things are beginning to become evident.”