The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, is opening access to some of its cutting-edge technologies to selected deeptech startups as part of a new programme dubbed CERN Venture Connect (CVC).
The research institute has developed incredibly sophisticated research tools, and is hoping that these technologies can be re-used to build real-world business applications in fields ranging from healthcare to quantum computing.
For now, CERN is sharing five technologies with founders, including laser technologies, cryogenics, data management tools and precision-synchronisation instruments. But the organisation is planning to open access to more as the programme expands.
With a good enough use case, selected founders could even apply to use CERN’s particle accelerators, although it's unlikely many founders will be seen playing around with the institute’s flagship 27-km long Large Hadron Collider. As Ash Ravikumar, who oversees the programme as CERN’s entrepreneurship development officer, puts it, for most applications that would be like using “an axe to cut a flower”.
Startup founders at Series A and below from CERN full member and associate member states can apply to join CVC by submitting their use cases, which will be assessed on a rolling basis. Ravikumar says that he's hoping to take on 10 to 20 startups.
Particle physics research and startups
Encouraging the creation of new businesses based on its particle physics research isn't a new endeavour for CERN. The institute is already associated with a number of deeptech startups such as next-generation X-ray developer Mars Bioimaging, proton therapy accelerator designer Adam and carbon dating analysis startup Artemis Analytical.
But the CVC programme is intended to go one step further, by allowing founders direct access to highly sophisticated technologies. Until now, startups that wanted to use CERN’s tech would usually have to go through business incubators. CVC hopes to reduce the time and risk taken by founders to fine-tune their application and adapt it for industry.
“There’s no point in early-stage founders manufacturing the technology,” says Ravikumar. “We’ll give them a free prototype for their use case. If they break it, we don’t care — but if they build it, then they will quickly have a proof-of-concept that they can use to raise money.”
The programme is also designed to solve the licensing and IP issues that can occur when startups collaborate with research institutions. CERN will offer startups a simple agreement: 0% equity and 2% of net sales when the accrued amount crosses CHF 20k (€20.5k). In other words, startups will pay CERN CHF 20k for every CHF 1m (€1.02m) in sales.
“I don’t think we’ll get any money from this in the next five years,” says Ravikumar. “For a deeptech company to achieve this, it could take five years, seven years, it could take forever. But CERN’s infrastructure is fully paid-for already. We don’t need the cash flow.”
Finally, the programme will let successful applicants connect with CERN’s existing network of deeptech investors, startups and incubators.
Europe’s deeptech gap
With CVC, CERN hopes to address some of the common obstacles that continue to slow the growth of early-stage deeptech startups in Europe. Long development times for unproven technologies can often be too much of a risk for investors, resulting in scientific potential going unrealised. Despite government efforts to boost funding, Europe lags behind: between 2020-22, global VC investment in deeptech startups in Europe totalled $52bn, compared to $166bn in the US, according to Dealroom.
That makes closing the funding gap far from a near-term reality, but CERN’s new programme is a step towards positive change. Ekaterina Almasque, general partner at VC OpenOcean, notes that the programme’s attempts to solve challenges at different stages will be particularly beneficial. “Many founders will be particularly gratified by Venture Connect giving them the tools to meet multiple needs at once,” she tells Sifted. “Expert advice, connections with investors and technological resources.”
Ravikumar says he took inspiration from US-based programme Cyclotron Road, from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which supports entrepreneurial scientists and engineers for two years with funding and access to Berkeley Lab.
CVC, for its part, is still a first in Europe. “I hope there’s more of that”, says Ravikumar. “It’s coming here, but slowly.”