By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
By the middle of 2016, Beth Papanek hopes to achieve two major milestones – earn her doctorate from the University of Tennessee (UT) and exit her first start-up.
The Illinois native is one of the 80 students who are part of the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, a joint initiative of UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) focused on attracting the nation’s brightest doctoral students in energy science and engineering.
Papanek is in the second class admitted, having earned both her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign. A strong interest in UT’s work in biofuels led her to apply for and be accepted into the new program.
Eighteen months later, Papanek says she’s “so privileged” to be able to work as a graduate student with some of the world’s leading scientists at ORNL. “I’m so connected,” she says, adding that her experiences are “amazing for career development.”
When the concept was still on the drawing board, the planners hoped that some fraction of the Bredesen Center students would pursue entrepreneurship, working with scientists at either UT or ORNL to commercialize the technologies on which they did their research.
“The Bredesen Center encourages us to pursue interests in either entrepreneurship or policy,” Papanek explained. The entrepreneurial track was a natural for her, having been part of a student team at Illinois working of two technologies from the Mayo Clinic.
“That started it (the entrepreneurial bug),” Papanek says. Since arriving here 18 months ago, the interest has only grown, thanks to involvement with many of the region’s entrepreneurial support organizations and ORNL’s Partnerships Directorate.
Papanek is focused on her research interest in bioenergy and a process called sonoporation that uses ultrasonic sound frequencies to modify the permeability of cells. The result of the process is the creation of genetically-mutated microorganisms that help optimize the process of making ethanol.
Those who attended the recent “Start-up Day” in Knoxville saw Papanek present a concept for a company that she is exploring. It is named Sonopore for the ORNL technology on which it is built.
“Even if the company does not get off the ground, I thought the pitch experience would be great,” she said. In fact, up until a few weeks before “Start-up Day,” she wondered if the technology really worked. About midnight a few days after it was tested, she received a text from a friend helping with testing who provided positive results.
Papanek recalls her reaction as “No way; awesome.”
There’s still work to be done, probably another year, but the initial results have attracted the attention of several angel investors. This is very early in the process, and rights to the technology (assuming it works) will be determined by an open, competitive process.
“The best case scenario for me to start a company (Sonopore), secure a license, demonstrate the technology, and have the company acquired about the time I graduate,” Papanek said. “The worst case is the technology does not work, but I still have a PhD.”
She also cited ORNL’s Shaun Gleason and Tom Rogers for their help. The former, who is also an entrepreneur (ImTek), taught a once-a-week entrepreneurship course for the Bredesen Center students.
“He was so available, so exceptionally encouraging,” Papanek said.
In the case of Rogers, she spends regular time with his Economic and Industrial Partnerships team. “Tom has been so encouraging and supportive.” She adds.
Eighteen months after arriving here, Papanek is pursuing exciting research and exploring standing-up a company. She’s already better ingrained than many entrepreneurs in the local community, thanks in large measure to those cited above. And while she has declined the angel money as premature at this point, she views her present situation as a unique educational opportunity with (hopefully) a company in her future.
So, what does the future hold for this Illini?
“Eventually, I want a job in tech transfer,” she explained. “If I understand that process, I can better help others.”