Hey, don’t walk through the valley of death: New ‘hub’ shepherds startups through to commercialization

tech startup

A new type of accelerator is about to launch in Kingston and will re-imagine the way start-ups are supported from idea to commercialization, successfully leading them through the “valley of death,” local officials say.

The RXN Hub builds on the city’s existing ecosystem of accelerators and incubators initially developed for the software industry to address the gap that halts chem-tech start-ups in later stages of development from reaching commercialization.

“What we are looking to do is to redefine the way that we take technologies out of the lab, out of universities, out of incubators and accelerators, and bring them to commercialization, where they can be fully sustainable companies or be integrated into large multinationals so that we can bring sustainable technologies to organizations at a commercial scale,” says Sebastian Alamillo, founder and executive director of RXN Hub.

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Using standard definitions of technology readiness levels and his own experience in the chem-tech sector, Alamillo has identified what he terms the “valley of death” for innovators attempting to reach the final stages of development.  

“Start-ups are struggling with getting their invention out of the validation stage and into a scale-up and piloting stage,” he says. “Effectively, what a start-up gets when they come to us is centralized access to all the wraparound services that they need in order to build a business, including lab space.”

With plans to begin full operations in 2023, RXN Hub is building a 21,000-square-foot facility in the former Innovation Park building in Kingston. The space will be fully appointed with the scientific equipment that chem-tech companies need to build large-scale pilots for their technologies.  

According to Alamillo, one of the biggest challenges is an assumption that all innovation is the same. Traditional incubators, accelerators, superclusters and open innovation initiatives do not provide a clear model for the commercialization of industrial technologies essential to daily life, he argues.

“So this is us trying to change the narrative and educate that chemistry is different, sustainability is different, that we have to start doing some new things here,” says Alamillo.

It’s no accident that this is all happening in Kingston, with its nearly 100-year history of chem-tech development, whether at Queen’s University, DuPont, Novelis and now Kingston Process Metallurgy (KPM), an integrated chemical process development company with clients around the globe.

“The metallurgy talent present in Kingston through academia and industry makes the city a fertile ground for companies to innovate and grow,” says Abdul Razak Jendi, investment manager, sustainable manufacturing with Invest Kingston.

“In Kingston we have a couple of hundred process development experts that are available, this is why it’s happening here. The city has been a big part of this. It made totally clear sense to them that we have all this talent and expertise and they said this a no-brainer, let’s do it,” says Boyd Davis, principal, project development, and co-owner of KPM.

“All I’m doing is leveraging the existing infrastructure and ecosystem that currently exist and just building on top of it to be able to centralize and leverage the value there, to make sure that the sum of all the individual parts is greater as a whole,” says Alamillo.

The RXN Hub has gathered a network of 90 partners, including KPM, that specialize in some aspect of industrial commercialization. The key to the hub will be collaboration with established accelerators, incubators, industry and government agencies.

“The idea of having better coordination to grow firms and attract firms is a great economic development tool. A hub that grows new start-ups into successful employing firms is obviously a great thing for economic development,” says Craig Desjardins, director of innovation and partnerships with City of Kingston, adding that the city has given conditional approval for a $3-million investment towards the hub’s physical space.

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