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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Carolina moves more research discoveries and inventions to market for commercial impact

During fiscal years 2019 and 2020, Carolina inventors turned an increasing number of ideas from their labs into inventions, patents, technologies and startups that translate into commercial products and services

Rahima Benhabbour working at a lab table.
Rahima Benhabbour and her team at AnnellO work in the lab in 2019. (Photo by Sarah Daniels.)

The number of inventions and discoveries developed and moved into the commercial market by faculty and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is on the rise, according to a new commercialization impact report.

The report “From Ingenuity to Impact” examines the economic and social impact made during fiscal years 2019 and 2020 by University inventors who work to translate the University’s $1.14 billion research portfolio into products and services that contribute to the public good.

Findings from the report illustrate that the University’s innovation activity involving inventions reported, U.S. patents issued and technologies licensed to industry and faculty IP-based startups continued to expand over the most recent two fiscal years. The report was published by the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization as part of Innovate Carolina, the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Carolina commercialization rising: Inventions, patents, licensing revenue

Comparing the most recent five-year period (FY16-20) to the previous five-year period (FY11-15) shows:

  • A 22% increase in invention disclosures.
  • A 26% increase in new patent applications.
  • A 66% increase in issued U.S. patents.
  • A 58% increase in revenue from technologies licensed.

In addition, during the past two most recent fiscal years (FY2019 and FY2020), UNC-Chapel Hill students, faculty and staff have created 14 new startup companies based on intellectual property, raising the total of IP-based startups launched by Carolina founders to 135 and the number of total Carolina-affiliated startups overall to 731 ventures. The startups data is based on Innovate Carolina’s Startups Impact Database, which tracks the activity and economic impact of the University’s startups tracing back to 1958.

“Through their curiosity, inventiveness and perseverance, Carolina innovators are bringing an increasing number of discoveries that are based on intellectual property and developed in the University’s labs into the commercial market, where they advance the public good,” said Judith Cone, vice chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development at UNC-Chapel Hill. “By turning their ideas and research into technologies and ventures that generate new jobs and revenue for North Carolina citizens and people around the world, our inventors make a significant economic impact, which is particularly critical during the challenging pandemic period. Many of these technologies and ventures emerge from the University’s expertise in life sciences and become new devices, diagnostics, treatments and cures that help people live longer, healthier and more productive lives.”

Scaling new startups

The report also details the economic impact of UNC-Chapel Hill’s startups and describes the human impact made by a variety of its ventures.

As of the end of the latest fiscal year (June 2020), data on Carolina-affiliated ventures show:

  • 135 total IP-based startups and 731 total startups launched by founders affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill since 1958.
  • Of the 135 total-based startups, 69% (93 startups) remain active, with 83% of the active ventures headquartered in North Carolina. Based on a snapshot analysis, by the end of fiscal year 2020, these startups generated $253 million in annual revenue.
  • 1,308 people are employed by Carolina’s IP-based startups, with 74% of these employees (962 people) working in North Carolina.
  • Of the 731 total UNC-affiliated startups (IP- and non-IP-based), 72% (526 total ventures) remain active, with 84% headquartered in North Carolina. Based on a snapshot analysis, by the end of fiscal year 2020, these startups generated $15 billion in annual revenue.*
  • 87,311 people are employed by the total number of Carolina-affiliated startups (IP-based and non-IP-based ventures), with 15% (13,339 people) working in North Carolina.
  • 84% of active UNC-Chapel Hill IP-based startups work in life sciences. These startups reflect Carolina’s No. 11 national ranking in life science research and its outstanding bio-medical science programs. A combined 99% of its IP-based life science startups are launched by faculty and researchers from five academic units: the School of Medicine, the College of Arts & Sciences, the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Adams School of Dentistry.

Innovation initiatives: Building go-to-market momentum

Noted within the report are several new and expanding initiatives that accelerate innovations to market at UNC-Chapel Hill:

  • The Institute for Convergent Science pilot program, which includes the renovation of more than 20,000 square feet of lab and collaboration space in the Genome Sciences Building to mobilize diverse teams of researchers, designers, experts and entrepreneurs on solving complex problems faster.
  • KickStart Acceleratoris a wet lab accelerator run by KickStart Venture Services that provides startup space, programming and services in the Genome Science Building adjacent to the Institute of Convergent Science space. Faculty working on life science startups can apply to join the accelerator, which helps them establish and grow their young companies on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Four companies have already joined the accelerator since December, with several additional startups planning to move into the space within the next month. As of June 2020, KickStart has provided consulting and $2.5 million to 94 companies since 2009. The companies have gone one to raise over $72.9 million in federal SBIR/STTR grants and $862 million in total funding to date.
  • Pinnacle Hill, the company created through a partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill and Deerfield Management in 2018, has now funded two faculty projects. In 2019, Pinnacle Hill announced its first project agreement to support the work of Lindsey James, an assistant professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy who is focused on finding breakthrough treatments for multiple myeloma. In June 2020, the company began working with Ben Philpot, Kenan Distinguished Professor and associate director of the UNC Neuroscience Center in the School of Medicine. Philpot’s research aims to develop a treatment for Angelman syndrome.
  • UNC-Chapel Hill startup investor programscontinue to invest in startups during the coronavirus pandemic period. As of June, the Carolina Angel Network, which is the only official angel network for startups and ventures connected to UNC-Chapel Hill, had invested $12.2 million in 19 companies across 27 investment rounds, including several companies during the COVID-19 economic downturn. Carolina Research Ventures continues to help fill the funding gap for faculty founders. With the initial committed capital of $10 million from the UNC Health system, as of June, the fund had invested in eight companies since its inception. Two of these have been realized with attractive rates of return. In 2019, the University and UNC Health system committed an additional $10 million to the fund.

Startup standouts

The report details the work of several Carolina startup ventures with strong commercial traction. These include companies that are working on a variety of innovations:

  • Handheld hazard detection.908 Devices is changing the landscape of mass spectrometry through a handheld device that is being used by first responders and the military to quickly detect chemical, explosive, drug and hazmat threats. Founded by Michael Ramsey, Minnie N. Goldby Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.
  • 3D-printed drug delivery devices.AnelleO is creating a 3D-printed intravaginal ring that can be used for treating infertility, a range of other women’s health conditions, and potentially help prevent HIV infections. Founded by Rahima Benhabbour, assistant professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Antibody tech for respiratory infections and non-hormonal contraception. Mucommune and Inhalon Biopharma are two companies that use muco-trapping antibody technologies to fight respiratory syncytial virus (Inhalon) and enable non-hormonal contraception (Mucommune). Founded by Sam Lai, associate professor at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy.
  • Software to guide public health policy for consumer products.Counter Tools, a public health venture that uses a software platform to give communities and other policymakers insights to reduce the impact of tobacco and other harmful consumer products. Founded by Kurt Ribisl, health behavior department chair and Jo Anne Earp Distinguished Professor, Gillings School of Global Public Health; and Allison Myers, adjunct associate professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
  • Muting cancer-related gene mutations.EnFuego Therapeutics, a life science venture that is creating RNA-interference drugs for treating cancer. Founded by Dr. Chad Pecot, associate professor at the School of Medicine and associate director of translational thoracic oncology at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.