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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Carolina and Duke team up to launch entrepreneurial startup hub

Funded by the U.S. EDA Sprint Challenge award, the new hub will boost economic development in the Research Triangle by providing startups with entrepreneurial advisers, a joint talent network and access to service providers.

A collage of photos from UNC and Duke.

In the past, if you launched a startup in the Research Triangle region, daunting questions arrived faster than answers. How do you navigate the limited avenues of support for turning intellectual property into products or services? Or compete with larger corporations that have more established networks and resources? Or wrestle with the reality that venture capital investments and IPOs in the region trail other US-based innovation centers? And how do you find the right team to help you run the business without having any money?

But, thanks to an innovative partnership between two of the world’s leading research universities that both call the Triangle home, IP-based startups in the area are now well-positioned to answer tough questions faster and thrive in the long term. Kickstart Venture Services, a University department that is part of the Innovate Carolina initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the New Ventures Program at the Duke Office of Licensing and Ventures are working together to launch an entrepreneurial hub aimed at strengthening startups and positioning them for success. The hub will provide startups with access to an entrepreneurial ecosystem, a joint talent network and an established database of service providers.

“Many startups don’t have access to the resources they need,” says Mireya McKee, director of Kickstart Venture Services at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Together with our colleagues at Duke, we can make a synergistic impact on economic development and entrepreneurship in our area. Our research strengths will significantly increase the economic and social impact of UNC and Duke research, creating a leading entrepreneurial hub in the nation.”

The Research Triangle-focused hub will be funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s  SPRINT Challenge award – “Scaling Pandemic Resilience Through Innovation and Technology” – is a program designed to harness the nation’s entrepreneurial potential to address the economic, health and safety risks caused by the coronavirus pandemic through entrepreneurship and innovation.

UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke have long fostered a strong environment for research innovation and IP generation. Out of 238 grant applications, the pair were one of 44 recipients that received the $750,000 grant, with $400,000 allocated to UNC-Chapel Hill and $350,000 going to Duke.

“By combining the talent and resources of both our universities with the technical, financial and intellectual resources needed to sustain entrepreneurial activities, we can make a difference in helping our early stage startups thrive,” says Robin Rasor, executive director, OLV. “We are thrilled to collaborate with UNC to further develop the entrepreneurial hub and look forward to the impact it will have on our region.”

Both institutions are heavy hitters when it comes to attracting research funding. Just last year – even during the global COVID-19 pandemic – both institutions pulled in a combined $2.2 billion in research funding and applied for more than 350 patent applications. To date, the two universities boast more than 290 research-based startups and 14 IPOs combined.

To best position startups, the entrepreneurial hub will take five approaches:

  1. Assist in creating commercially-viable startups by matching innovators to experienced entrepreneurs and other needed talent.
  2. Provide market and competitive assessment, financial planning, and introduction to investors through mentorship programs.
  3. Attract potential investors by offering pitch training and targeted events.
  4. Match business and graduate students to startup projects for entrepreneurial experiential learning and also to develop the next generation of small business leaders.
  5. Draw upon R&D support by establishing a network of trusted resource partners.
  6. Facilitate partnerships and deals by hosting regular technology showcase events.

Over the next 18 months, the entrepreneurial hub aims to create at least 18 new startups, six with a COVID focus, as well as create a Founders network and database of trusted resource partners. In addition, the hub aims to organize at least three showcase events.

Startups that participate in the entrepreneurial hub can expect to go on to raise significant dilutive and non-dilutive funding.

“Scientists are really good at innovating in the lab, but they often do not have the experience in running a successful business,” says McKee. “They may not have the right skills, or the time, to create a business model to grow their ventures. This hub will help entrepreneurs form stronger companies that will attract additional funding, create new products, and have successful exits.”