Three Cornell scientists were honored during a June 1 ceremony promoting women’s engagement in innovation and commercialization – part of Cornell’s efforts to elevate women inventors, who were awarded just 12.8% of all U.S. patents in 2019.
“Historically and statistically, women have been far less likely than men to take an innovator and entrepreneurial route, which is a huge loss to society,” Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff said. “At Cornell, we are committed to supporting women’s engagement in science, technology and innovation by promoting a culture that supports women as they seek solutions to big and small problems.”
The Women Innovator Awards are a key component of the Women Innovators Initiative, established by Cornell Technology Licensing (CTL) to increase participation by female faculty, staff and students in technology innovation and commercialization and to support their interests in entrepreneurship and leadership roles. The awards, presented during ceremony held simultaneously via livestream on Cornell’s Ithaca campus and at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, are funded in part by a grant from the President’s Council of Cornell Women.
Sheila Nirenberg, the Nanette Laitman Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience and a professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine, received the inaugural Barbara McClintock Women Innovator Award, which recognizes women innovators whose outstanding inventions have made a tangible impact on society. McClintock, Class of 1923, M.S. ’25, Ph.D. ’27, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize as a sole recipient, and is best known for her discovery of genetic transposition.
Nirenberg’s patent portfolio is amongst the largest that Cornell manages. She co-founded two companies: Bionic Sight, built on a technology that combines gene therapy with a prosthetic device to restore vision in patients with retinal degeneration; and Nirenberg Neurosciences, an artificial intelligence company that develops powerful new computer vision technology.
“I realized that if I had the code, I have the potential to make a device that can make blind people see,” Nirenberg said. “And three weeks later, I realized that same code could also be used for a new kind of machine vision – to make robots see, to make self-driving cars.
“Suddenly I wasn’t a basic scientist anymore, but an applied scientist, an entrepreneur,” she said.
The Rising Women Innovator Awards, given to two recipients, recognize women whose inventions have transformative potential and are in early stages of commercialization. The two inaugural awards honored Greeshma Gadikota, Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering; and Alexa Schmitz, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Buz Barstow, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Gadikota has developed novel technologies that could open new directions in carbon capture and conversion. Her nascent startup, Carbon to Stone, captures carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and converts it into solid calcium and magnesium carbonates. The process has the potential to be widely implemented in energy-intensive industries with large carbon footprints. It would provide an energy-efficient tool to address climate change by accelerating the timescales of carbon dioxide removal from a few days to just a few hours.
“A lot of work that we do with our research group is really inspired by nature. We call it geo-inspired or earth-inspired,” Gadikota said. “We look at nature and see how nature transforms certain elements, particularly carbon. We use these insights to develop innovative carbon transformation pathways”
Schmitz engineers microbes to extract rare earth elements (REE) from rocks using organic acids, a process called bioleaching. Her company REEgen, which she co-founded with Sean Medin, a doctoral student in the department of biological and environmental engineering, is re-envisioning the global rare earth supply by replacing the most harmful production steps with clean microbial processes.
“I had so many mentors during this process who have been incredibly supportive, and I hope someday I will be one of those mentors for other entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers—anybody who needs to understand the process and how to put one foot in front of another,” Schmitz said. “I see it now as my responsibility to give back to the next generation.”