Rochester Tech Companies Play for Big Bucks at XRIJF
Words and photos by Olivia Bauso
No matter how old you get or how much practical experience you have under your belt, you can always learn more. The most successful businesses are built by those with a desire to expand their knowledge, who apply skills they’ve developed in other fields, and constantly think forward.
NextCorps, formerly High Tech Rochester, is a non-profit supporting start-ups and manufacturers with a desire to expand their knowledge, and thus, their businesses. Located on the newly renovated 6th floor of Sibley Square, NextCorps works primarily with high tech and clean energy companies in the Rochester and Finger Lakes regions, but recently launched an accelerator program with international reach.
With funding from Governor Cuomo’s Empire State Development Finger Lakes Forward initiative, NextCorps has launched Luminate: the only international startup accelerator focused solely on next-generation optics, photonics, and imaging (OPI). Optics is the branch of physics which involves the behaviour and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Photonics is the branch of technology concerned with the properties and transmission of photons, for example in fiber optics, and imaging science is concerned with the generation, collection, duplication, analysis, modification, and visualization of images, including imaging things that the human eye cannot detect. OPI hardware and software development is the next big thing in technology and research.
NextCorps’ Emily Hessney Lynch says, “Rochester has always been a hub for optics, so it made a lot of sense to put an accelerator for that industry here. We have many innovative optics companies in the area, so having startups be based here and be able to go through a program that gives introductions to others in the community seemed like a great way to contribute to the continual growth of the optics, photonics, and imaging industry in Rochester.”
Luminate accepted applications from June 2017- September 2017 before choosing 25 semi-finalists to pitch their companies in the fall. Ten winners of November’s Lightning Awards each received $100,000 in funding, free residency in the accelerator and access to NextCorps’ web of resources and mentoring. The ten selected finalists include: Arovia, Inc., Lumotune, Molecular Glasses, Inc., LighTopTech Corp., Intelon Optics, Inc., Bounce Imaging, DoubleHelix LLC, Think Biosolution Tarsier Optics, Inc and Positive Science.
The ten finalists will give one final pitch on June 28th, 2018 at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival for the chance to receive $1 million in follow-on funding. An additional $1 million will be dispersed amongst other promising companies. Emily says, “It's a diverse group of people in the program; they're all coming from different experiences and backgrounds, but everyone is passionate about their work and excited to be in Rochester, learning and growing together.” Included in the group of finalists are three female founders, two international companies and several local college grads.
RIT Imaging and Technology (BS) and Color Science (MS) grad and founder/CEO of Positive Science Jason Babcock is a transplant who is super excited about the opportunities for optics in Rochester. He says, “There’s just a workforce that’s super smart here. Everybody knows how to get something done, or knows someone else who can.”
After living and working in New York City for about ten years, Jason found the opportunity for growth wasn’t accessible. He explains, “Let me describe it this way: when I was in NYC, I probably had access to all of these things, but I could never get my foot in the door because of the saturation of people also trying to gain the same resources. But take that same, high quality of resources and put it in a smaller city, and suddenly you have easier access to top talent and the advice to help you grow your business.” Jason first moved back to Rochester when Positive Science was accepted in RIT’s Venture Creations incubator.
Positive Science specializes in wearable eye tracking technology which uses infrared sensors to track the pupil. In practice, the result is video imaging similar to a GoPro camera view with a crosshair moving rapidly. That crosshair corresponds to a smaller thumbnail view of the subject’s eye. Essentially, wherever the crosshair lands is exactly where the subject is looking. The extended clip below was rendered using Positive Science's eye-tracking software and hardware. Watch the driver's visual strategies while scanning the scene to avoid pedestrians, watch cars to the left, center, and right, as well as glances to the rear-view mirror.
Eye-tracking research began on adult humans before expanding to babies and, most recently, to animals. Until now most eye-tracking companies focused their energies on developing products in the lab, treating fieldwork as an afterthought. Positive Science has a different point of view. They think participation in fieldwork is critical to developing better systems, and Jason admits his technology is highly interwoven into his life. He has used his hardware to track his daughter’s eye movements since birth, taking it on vacation, to the grocery store and everywhere in between. He says, “I think one day in the future it won’t be so strange to see people wearing some sort of tracking system, whether it’s your eyes or something else. It’s exciting to be in the beginning stages of that.”
All this technology may seem out of reach to the average person, but Jason is proof that a hunger for knowledge and success can go a long way. He came from an artistic background, and translated his creative and jewelry- making skills into learning how to fabricate circuit boards and code major software. He says, “It was like that same rushing, thrilling experience when I completed a project. It was a big step for me getting into this field. I really struggled with the science and math, but here I am running a company that’s based on those things.”
He continues, “I think the public should be really proud of Rochester. There are a lot of people here who graduated from Kodak and didn’t leave and it really says something about the city that there is this whole workforce creating new businesses.” Jason adds that it’s our job as residents of the city to support these ventures and enable the growth of technology: “We need to do a good job making sure these companies are successful, and I’m so excited that New York is investing in Upstate.”
Learn more about what companies like Positive Science have been working on through the Luminate accelerator at their final event, Light Tomorrow with Today on June 28, 2018. There, the inaugural cohort will demonstrate technology (including eye-tracking drones!) and give a final pitch for their startups. Snack on samples from local food entrepreneurs, chat with vendors and visit us at the Rochester Brainery table from 11am- 2pm! This is a free event, but registration is required.