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Spotlight on N-STEP Graduates

Tedco Chart

NIST’s Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (N-STEP) was created by the company, TEDCO, whose mission is to “Enhance economic development growth through the fostering of an inclusive entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem. Discover, invest in, and help build great Maryland based technology companies.”  When working with federal labs, it is possible for TEDCO to support tech transfer efforts nationally. TEDCO provides resources and connections that early stage technology and life science companies need to thrive in Maryland. 

The overall objective of the N-STEP program is to provide commercial opportunities for motivated researchers to build upon the experience gained, while working at NIST, as they explore entrepreneurial careers. Eligible N-STEP applicants are NIST Associates, researchers previously employed by NIST and current employees nearing the end of their term employment at NIST, including but not limited to NIST Post-Doctoral Fellows. 

For National Entrepreneurship Week, the Technology Partnerships Office interviewed a couple N-STEP graduates about their experiences.

Javier Atencia, CEO, PathOtrak, LLC

Where did you go to school and what was your field of study? 

I went to school at the University of Navarra in Spain and obtained a PhD in electrical engineering. My thesis was on electromagnetic linear drives. Between my master’s and PhD, I did several short incursions in Industry.

What jobs did you have before coming to NIST?

I worked for Bosch GMbH in Treto, Spain as a quality engineer and at ESAS S.A. in Madrid, Spain and Fraba GmbH in Cologne, Germany as an electronics design engineer. After my Ph.D., I moved to Madison, Wisconsin to do a post-doctorate in microfluidics and later joined NIST to continue developing new microfluidic technologies.

What did you do at NIST? 

I spent several years at NIST developing new technology to leverage micro-scale phenomena. I proposed new technological concepts, generated proof of principles, validated it experimentally, published in a peer-reviewed journal and disclosed patents. This resulted in a significant number of disclosures and eight issued patents. The company I founded is commercializing one of these inventions.

What was N-STEP like? 

I learned about the N-STEP through the Technology Partnership Office at NIST. The program is fantastic. The program manager was extremely helpful in explaining what the goal of the program was and the feedback was great. Putting the proposal together is not just making a technical plan but presenting a well-thought out business plan. Initially, we started developing the technical plan using a small portion of shared lab space at NIST’s Material Measurement Laboratory, thanks to the support of the lab group-leader. The program allowed us to move to an incubator at the University of Maryland in College Park where we purchased critical tools and machines to move the technology to the next level. The project was a total success. Not only did we meet the milestones set forward in the proposal, but we went well beyond them. The N-STEP program allowed us to de-risk the technology and move substantially forward in the path of commercialization. After the conclusion of the N-STEP program we started a $1.5 million seed funding round that we are about to close.  

What is the mission of PathOtrak?

At PathOtrak we are revolutionizing the food industry with our next generation, ultra-rapid, food-safety test kits. Every year in the United States, 47 million people get sick from food poisoning and 3,000 die. Yet, the bottleneck for rapid pathogen detection has not changed in 100 years. The current one to two day ‘rapid’ food-safety tests compel the food industry to balance shelf-life and profit against food safety.  PathOtrak’s award-winning technology enables the release of a product within four hours, reducing holding costs by 90% for food producers and preventing Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks that make millions sick every year.

My next step is obtaining the AOAC accreditation and getting our first product to market. It is a very exciting moment for us, because we are about to finish the first batch of injection-molded devices ready for commercial use. We are now a core team of seven people, plus advisors and investors, and we all have one common goal to revolutionize food-safety and make food-borne pathogen outbreaks a thing of the past. 

Do you have any business advice?

My main advice for starting a company is to make sure that there is a market before devoting any time and effort to de-risk a technology. Technologies are not sold because they are cool, elegant or interesting, but because there are people that ‘absolutely need them’. Programs like I-corps help derisk the business opportunity and programs like N-STEP help de-risk the technology.

Danielle France, CEO, Microbial Pulse Diagnostics, LLC

Where did you go to school and what was your field of study? 

I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and hold a Ph.D. in biological engineering. I have over 18 years of experience in biophysics and microbiology research.

What jobs did you have before coming to NIST? 

I was a key member of the Applied Research Team at Luca Technologies, a sustainable energy startup performing microbial methanogenesis from coal. Then, I moved to NIST as a National Research Council post-doctorate (NRC post-doc) in 2012.

What did you do at NIST? 

My National Research Council post-doc from 2012 to 2014 focused on microbiologically influenced corrosion. In 2014, Ward Johnson (NIST staff), Teresa Kirschling (NRC post-doc) and I formulated the idea behind Microbial Pulse Diagnostics, that we can measure nanoscale fluctuations of bacteria that reveal their response to antibiotics within minutes. As principal investigator for the Microbial Pulse project at NIST, I brought in the first $250,000 in seed funding from NIST’s Material Measurement Laboratory (MML) Angel Investor competition. Using the MML seed funding, we brought Fred Walls in to work with us, who had spent his career in the Time & Frequency division of the Physical Measurement Laboratory at NIST. Between 2015 and 2017, we built the exploratory measurement system, showed proof of concept, published a paper and patented the idea (US 9725752). At the end of 2017, Fred Walls and I formed Microbial Pulse Diagnostics, LLC and applied for the N-STEP program. I maintain hands-on expertise in wet labs as well as in data acquisition and analysis in order to drive technology development. As CEO of Microbial Pulse Diagnostics, LLC, I coordinate all things growing at the company.

What was N-STEP like? 

N-STEP was huge for us, because we knew that we would be competitive for the grant, which made the first year of trying to start the company relatively low risk. The grant paid for us to remake our analog measurement system in a compact digital form and let us kick off a collaboration with Denver Health Hospital where we obtain clinical samples for testing.

What is the mission of Microbial Pulse Diagnostics, LLC?

We use our novel technology to approach how measurements are made for infectious disease. It brings together skill sets from multiple different areas. The truly interdisciplinary team that we formed at NIST was key in getting the idea off the ground and the initial support from Laurie Locascio (former Associate Director for Laboratory Programs at NIST) through the Angel Investor competition was instrumental. 

Do you have any business advice?

Go for it! Ask for lots of advice from people who have done it before, but remember that the absolute answers that come from the lab don't exist in the business world. There are many ways to build a business.

To learn more about TEDCO visit:

To learn more about the N-STEP program, contact:

Released February 18, 2020, Updated March 12, 2020