Productivity software, breakthrough therapies for cystic fibrosis, wearable art, and drugs targeting gut bacteria were among the innovations on display at the recent 2014 UNC Emerging Companies Showcase. The annual event, held April 28 at the Friday Center, featured many of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s most promising startup companies including scientific, tech, social and commercial ventures launched by students and faculty across campus.
Ten companies presented 8-minute formal pitches before being joined by early-stage student and alumni startups for a demo and networking session. The chance to meet potential investors and service providers, or fill in a missing piece of their team, are reasons the young companies look forward to the event.
“This annual event is a celebration of exciting research and innovation undertaken at UNC, and highlights our efforts to translate discoveries outside of the University,” said Don Rose, director of Carolina KickStart. “It also gives the companies an opportunity to connect with important people in area, whether it is an investor, a service provider or someone interested in their company’s product.”
Shifting research climate calls for innovative solutions
UNC has a long history of innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly in areas of scientific and medical research. Two recent trends in these areas have prompted universities like UNC to take a stronger interest in commercialization, said David Spencer, CEO of Spirovation, one of the companies featured at the event. First, grant money for academic research is harder to secure than ever, with half as many proposals being funded by the major supporter of biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health. Second, a massive reduction in research and development budgets in the pharmaceutical industry means companies are spending less time discovering and developing new drugs.
University spin-outs can address those issues, using venture capital and other sources of funding to take academic research on potential drugs and technologies further so that bigger industry players can pick them up in later stages of development. Four of the five scientific companies that presented at the Emerging Companies Showcase focus on one specific medical problem, such as producing safer alternatives to the blood thinner heparin (Glycan Therapeutics) or reducing the side effects of chemotherapy (Symberix). The clinical research organization Spirovation, in contrast, focuses on the process itself, bridging the gap between UNC’s expertise in disease mechanisms and industry’s expertise in drug development.
“Our goal is to keep research going and keep labs going, to develop innovative drugs and make better decisions early on so companies don’t have to waste a billion dollars, as they do in some cases, discovering that a drug will not work,” said Mary Bauman, CBO of Spirovation. The company currently has three to four potential partnerships with industry in the making, all focused on respiratory biology and medicine.
Despite their different missions, all of the companies have benefited from various commercialization and business development resources at UNC. For example, startup company Meryx received assistance from Carolina KickStart, a program within the CTSA-funded North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute that is focused on providing education, mentoring, funding, and business connections for faculty interested commercializing biomedical technologies. KickStart Labs incubates scientific ventures, offering bench space, offices, and meeting facilities. Another company, Spyryx, sought expertise from both Carolina KickStart and the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, a research and consulting organization based at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Other programs, including the Office of Technology Development, RENCI, Innovate Carolina, and the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, have also helped the emerging companies get their start.
Campus incubators and accelerators fuel startup growth on campus
For campus startups that don’t need the specialized equipment necessary for scientific ventures, UNC incubators like Launch Chapel Hill, 1789 and the CUBE are perfect launch pads. The five companies presenting in the non-scientific track reside in one of UNC’s formal incubator and accelerator programs. The access to experienced entrepreneur mentors, work space and other resources such as accounting and legal services is critical for Kenan-Flagler Business School MBA student Jeff Henriod.
After winning Triangle Startup Weekend in fall 2013 with his company Let’s Chip In, Henriod wanted to develop the product and build a strong team, but needed extra support. At Launch Chapel Hill he’s found other founders to work with, such as Fred Stutzman, CEO of 80 Percent Solutions. Henriod credits the informal interactions with companies and mentors with fast-tracking Let’s Chip In’s development.
Stutzman, a UNC alum who also presented at the Emerging Companies Showcase, is using his time with the accelerator to take his company global. 80 Percent Solutions offers software productivity tools for a device-saturated workforce. His products have been featured in national media outlets such as The New York Times, The Economist and Wired Magazine and boast more than a million downloads to date.
True to UNC’s broad innovation strategy, the two technology companies in this track were joined by an art and fashion startup (ArtWear Designs), a clean-tech solution to providing safe, late night transportation on college campuses (Buzz Rides) and a gluten-free bread and baked goods company (Betty’s Better Breads). The push to encourage a multidisciplinary approach to innovation and entrepreneurship on its campus is what makes UNC standout among its peers at other universities says Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship and the interim director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.
“I’m encouraged by the mix of students – graduate and undergraduate – along with faculty and alumni who are starting ventures at UNC,” she said. “We want our students especially to learn to look at the major challenges facing our world, think ‘I can create a solution,’ and then have the skills to go do just that.”
The 2014 Emerging Companies Showcase demonstrates that UNC is well on its way to achieving that goal.