After 30 years in academia, Dr. Joel Berry is jumping into the startup world with a funding marketplace that could help bring the next big scientific breakthrough to life.
Berry is the founder of Birmingham-based Astound, a platform dedicated to connecting academic researchers with companies. The goal is to streamline how industry-funded academic research gets off the ground.
Berry estimates that corporate-sponsored academic research is a $40 billion market in the US alone. But be it for research on agriculture, artificial intelligence, or any field in between, those researchers traditionally have had a difficult time connecting with industry partners and corporate sponsors to bring their projects to life.
It is a problem Berry experienced during his time as a biomedical engineer and professor. He described landing research funding as a “labor-intensive and high-friction” process overall. And once a research project gets underway, there is additional friction and bureaucratic red tape associated with tracking contract agreements and the status of the overall project. Astound looks to help academics and industry leaders collaborate better throughout the research process.
Because of Berry’s background in bioengineering, the team is first targeting the life sciences research community.
Astound comes out of Mark Two Venture Studio, a Nashville-based firm focused on tech startups in the “Deep South” region. Berry is based in Birmingham and has several team members in Huntsville.
Berry said work on the idea really started as a “scholarly exercise” to better understand the market surrounding industry-funded academic research. While Berry and Mark Two have been working on the concept since last August, Astound closed its $1 million seed round from Mark Two and officially incorporated this May. The team plans to fully launch the platform in early 2023.
The team, currently made up of 6 employees, has gone through its long customer discovery phase and is now in the process of testing its prototype platform with more potential corporate sponsors.
The platform has already attracted some strong interest on the academic side.
Bill Dean, Executive Director of Auburn University’s Research & Technology Foundation and an early user of Astound, wrote that: “A tool that could provide real-time, actionable insights into what problems industry has and what they are looking for in terms of R&D support would be tremendously valuable to us.”
Alabama is a unique place to build up such an academic-focused tech startup. It is home to four of the 31 doctoral research universities in the Southeast. The University of Alabama at Birmingham, where Berry was an associate professor for twelve years, is known for its strong life sciences department.