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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Where faculty startups start out

The new 7,500-square-foot KickStart Accelerator provides faculty-founded startups based on UNC-Chapel Hill intellectual property a convenient, collaborative place to grow their companies.

Joseph Ruiz worked at a lab bench.
Joseph Ruiz, president of Enzerna, working at the companies bench in the new KickStart Accelerator. (Photo by Sarah Daniels/Innovate Carolina)

Walk five minutes across campus? Or drive a half-hour down Interstate 40? For faculty who need to find specialized wet labs where they can run their young life science startups, that sounds like an easy choice. But until recently, the convenience of an on-campus accelerator was just something faculty wished for as they battled traffic jams on their way to wet labs in Durham, Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park.

Now, faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who want to launch their own startups have a quicker – and more cost-friendly — option just a few steps from their on-campus labs. Located on the second floor of the Genome Sciences Building in the heart of campus, the KickStart Accelerator provides a great home for startups, offering space designed to foster collaboration and encourage innovation. The 7,500-square-foot accelerator offers wet lab and office space, including shared equipment, cubicles, meeting spaces and common areas that support collaborative innovation for Carolina-affiliated life science companies.

Currently, the accelerator is home to five startups, with additional startups scheduled to move in during 2021. They’re all part of the more than 730 startups launched by UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, students and staff since 1958 – employing more than 87,000 people globally and more than 13,000 people in North Carolina.

The accelerator and its programming are managed by the KickStart Venture Services team, a core program of Innovate Carolina, the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship. With a history of making an incredible impact on startups and housed within the UNC Office of Technology Commercialization, KickStart Venture Services offers a variety of services to faculty-founded ventures based on intellectual property: from the coaching, advisement and connections it normally provides to pandemic-specific support like helping companies pivot existing life science technologies toward COVID-19, write grants for COVID-related federal grants and plan for future physical space needs. As of June 2020, KickStart Venture Services provided consulting and $2.5 million in funding to 94 companies. These companies have gone on to raise over $862 million in follow-on funding to date, a 345-fold leverage over the dollars provided by KickStart Venture Services.

“Peer-to-peer advice is wonderful. Sometimes the best advice comes not just from our team, but from peers,” said Mireya McKee, interim director of KickStart Venture Services . “The accelerator will be a perfect place for interactions between faculty founders who have been successful in their startups as well as offer space for new collaborations.”

In designing and seeking a location for the accelerator, the team was intentional in setting up the space to foster opportunities for collaboration.

“The space itself was originally just another wet lab in the biology department, and we’ve converted it into an accelerator,” said Hallie French, administrative support specialist with KickStart Venture Services. “We took into consideration the need for sharing equipment and having plenty of space for companies that want to work in an open lab as well as managing the private lab space and turning some of these more private labs into spaces that companies can actually use.”

A variety of meeting and individual workspaces give teams the flexibility to focus on their own projects while connecting with others. Even if startups are working on very different projects, there are still opportunities for them to interact across benches and common areas.

“Proximity is key. We’re hoping to create more collaboration across many disciplines that may not be obvious ahead of time,” said McKee. “With additional KVS programming services and resources available to startups, the accelerator provides space for a lot of interaction and cross-pollination between students and faculty.”

The accelerator has a total of eleven benches, which can be rented by the whole or half. It also includes six private lab rooms for lease and 5 rooms with shared equipment and facilities for all tenants. Companies currently in the accelerator include Enzerna Biosciences, Epigenos Biosciences, EnFuego Therapeutics, Perotech Corporation and Triangle Biotechnology.

“Participating in the accelerator program has given us the opportunity to grow in size and personnel without spending a fortune on essential lab equipment and resources. The KVS staff are very supportive of our company goals and timeline and are always ready to help in any way needed,” said Sunny Kasoji, chief technology officer at Triangle Biotechnology, which is working to improve the performance of sonication solutions for biological sample processing. “The accelerator has a combination of open lab benches and private rooms which can fit the basic needs of any biotech start-up company. I would absolutely recommend joining the accelerator and think it is an invaluable resource for new UNC companies.”

Triangle Biotechnology made the move to the KickStart accelerator when it opened late last year, bringing with it four employees. The accelerator was a good fit for the company as they were growing rapidly and needed additional space and benches at an affordable rate.

“It’s a bit of a no brainer to take full advantage of UNC’s technology development resources as a small company,” said Kasoji. “The KVS accelerator rates are very affordable, allowing us to continue research and product development while giving us time to secure a larger grant so we can graduate to off-campus facilities and become independent.”

Not only does the accelerator lend itself to collaboration in the way its space is designed but also with its geographic location on campus. The accelerator is part of a pilot program for the Institute for Convergent Science. The institute’s pilot involves renovating more than 20,000 square feet of lab and collaboration space in Genome Sciences Building, including the KickStart Accelerator, to mobilize new diverse teams of researchers, designers, experts and entrepreneurs.  This initiative will help move promising technologies to market by offering proof-of-concept and prototyping capabilities, expert business development support, and connections to industry and strategic partners. Located on the same floor in Genome Sciences Building, the Institute for Convergent Science demonstration area and KickStart Accelerator will offer faculty working on promising research projects and those launching startups the chance to exchange ideas.

“There’s definitely a very close connection with ICS,” said McKee. “We’re hoping to be more involved in guiding startups, serving as a resource for many projects being worked on through ICS. We have programs and KVS mentors who can help advise and guide faculty as they are going through the convergence science process. We can help them find the right path for their technology: from how it should be developed to the clearest way to create impact from their research.”

The significance of having a wet lab accelerator for life science startups in the heart of campus is tremendous, helping faculty founders in terms of convenience and connection to their core labs and research teams.

“I think one of the most important aspects of a university spinout is the seamless transition from taking the research from within your own laboratory in an academic setting and then being able to conduct company-specific research in an independent setting,” said Judy Prasad, KickStart Venture Services operations and program manager. “If you don’t have that transition into new laboratory space, the research can stall.”

For Carolina faculty, there aren’t many options for lab space where preliminary experiments can be conducted, since startups often need independent space to work and have to divide what is considered academic research versus private, independent company research.

“The accelerator provides a really nice separation of church and state when it comes to a principal investigator’s research versus their company’s research,” said Prasad. “With the accelerator on campus, it gives accessibility for founders to say, ‘I might be doing my research at my own lab, but I know that I can go to GSB and have people working on company-specific experiments that I can also oversee.’”

The benefits of joining the KickStart Accelerator include a connection to programming resources and entrepreneurial experts.

“The companies are all adjacent to one another, so you can have collaboration between founders and employees,” said Prasad. “There’s nothing stronger than the personal network that’s created between startups when you’re at such an early stage of biotech development.”

“The accelerator helps with connections, particularly as companies are getting started,” added French. “Between our networks and other services we offer, including the KickStart Advisory Panels and access to our webinars, KickStart is poised and ready to help startups reach their full potential.”