Innovation and Entrepreneurship

UNC-Chapel Hill startups deliver economic boost to pandemic recovery

A new analysis by Innovate Carolina shows startups affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill have generated more than $14 billion in revenue, created more than 12,000 jobs across North Carolina.

The interior of Launch Chapel Hill.
Since 2013, it has worked with 162 companies that have raised $39.8 million in funding. In 2020-21, these companies were responsible for 1,187 jobs, nearly 700 of which are in North Carolina. In the same year, Launch Chapel Hill companies raised $1.6 million in investment capital and earned $105 million in revenue. (Photo by Sarah Daniels/Innovate Carolina)

The economic impact of startups connected with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill continues to grow across North Carolina. A recent analysis conducted by Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s innovation services hub and University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship, reported the positive effect of Carolina-affiliated startups during the past fiscal year as the COVID-19 pandemic dampened local and global economies.

The analysis demonstrates how Carolina-based startups work as engines for economic growth, creating jobs and strengthening local economies and communities as they seek to recover from the pandemic.

During fiscal year 2021, Carolina startups and ventures made a significant economic impact in North Carolina and beyond:

  • $15.2 billion in annual revenue earned by Carolina-affiliated startups.
  • 95% of $15.2 billion in revenue ($14.4 billion) is from ventures headquartered in North Carolina.
  • 12,767 people employed in North Carolina by UNC-Chapel Hill startups with 89,579 people employed by Carolina startups worldwide
  • 83% of active UNC-Chapel Hill startups (446 of 538) are headquartered across 29 North Carolina counties.
  • $2.3 billion in funding raised during fiscal year 2021 (a total of $17.8 billion raised since 1958).

“Carolina faculty, students and alumni continue to raise the bar as they launch and scale more startups that solve important business and social problems across the state and globally,” said Michelle Bolas, interim vice chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development at UNC-Chapel Hill, who also oversees the Innovate Carolina initiative. “Entrepreneurs are vital in moving our economy toward a post-pandemic resurgence, and our Innovate Carolina team understands the critical role it plays in providing a hub of startup services and go-to-market expertise that startup founders and the owners of small businesses can turn to as they build for the future.”

Innovation hub bolsters startups with entrepreneurial services  

Through its innovation services hub, Innovate Carolina offers a wide range of startup services to help current and soon-to-be founders get the support their ventures need to thrive. For example, entrepreneurs receive support that helps them identify and secure funding, set up a company lab or office workspace in one of its startup accelerators, learn how to develop ventures through educational opportunities, and connect with entrepreneurial mentors and coaches who can answer questions and provide guidance based on decades of collective startup experience.

Several services are available to both faculty and student entrepreneurs at UNC-Chapel Hill and those outside the University. These include patent landscaping and market research services, which help entrepreneurs ensure that their ideas are market-ready, and design thinking consultations and workshops that guide entrepreneurs to develop products and services that customers want.

Innovate Carolina’s innovation hub also includes several startup accelerators and communities that boost local startups and contribute to the University’s economic impact.

  • Launch Chapel Hill is an international award-winning startup accelerator and co-working space created through a partnership between the University the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County and a private donor. Since 2013, it has worked with 162 companies that have raised $39.8 million in funding. In 2020-21, these companies were responsible for 1,187 jobs, nearly 700 of which are in North Carolina. In the same year, Launch Chapel Hill companies raised $1.6 million in investment capital and earned $105 million in revenue.
  • 1789 is Carolina’s student innovation community and entrepreneurship hub. For Carolina students and alumni who are interested in starting their own venture, 1789 offers support, mentorship, business coaches and essential services. The hub also offers workshops, office hours and events. Since 2014, 1789 has supported 280 ventures and teams that have raised $23.4 million in funding. In 2020-21, 1789-supported ventures employed 472 people and earned $28.3 million in revenue.
  • Kickstart Venture Services supports Carolina faculty entrepreneurs and research-based startups by providing education, early-stage funding and on-campus accelerator space. Since 2009, KickStart Venture Services has provided consulting and more than $2.5 million in awards to 105 startups. These companies have raised more than $1 billion in total funding, including $178.1 million in fiscal year 2021 alone.

Data drives measurement of startups’ impact

Innovate Carolina’s semi-annual startups analysis is powered by the Innovate Carolina Startups Database, a novel, proprietary database that captures and reports on how the University’s commercial and social ventures make an economic and social impact. The database makes it possible for the Innovate Carolina team and departments across the University to capture key information and data about Carolina’s startup companies founded by faculty, students, staff and recent alumni.

“The Innovate Carolina startups database goes beyond traditional approaches used in the wider academic community for measuring the results of university-born companies,” said Cindy Reifsnider, director of impact and research for Innovate Carolina. “Through the database, we can provide University decision-makers with statistics and information to determine the right resources needed at the right time for startups on their innovation path.”

New economic development strategy focused on local startup growth

Innovate Carolina’s latest startups analysis report comes on the heels of the University’s spring launch of a new Carolina Economic Development Strategy forged in partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill. In September, University and town leaders announced a series of progress updates on their shared strategy, which includes downtown beautification initiatives, progress on creating an innovation hub space and plans for a downtown innovation district. The September announcement also introduced a new University partnership with startup co-working pioneer BioLabs that aims to launch a new life science startup from Carolina each month.

The effort is part of a series of steps that the University and town will take to increase economic vitality in downtown Chapel Hill. The strategy, led by Innovate Carolina and two committees of University and local leaders, is designed to create a downtown innovation district that will retain, attract and grow more innovation-oriented companies and talent in Chapel Hill.

Recent Carolina startup successes 

Over the past year, a number of Carolina-affiliated startups made significant advances:

  • AskBio (Asklepios BioPharmaceutical) is a leading, clinical-stage gene therapy company dedicated to developing AAV gene therapies for genetic and complex disorders. The company was founded by Jude Samulski, a professor of pharmacology and founder of the UNC Gene Therapy Center. AskBio is an international gene therapy leader and was acquired in late 2020 by Bayer in a $4 billion deal. It continues to operate as its own independent company and was named the 2021 Life Sciences Award company of the year winner by the Triangle Business Journal.
  • StrideBio is developing advanced-generation gene therapies for patients with rare diseases. The company was founded by Aravind Asokan, formerly a professor at the UNC Gene Therapy Center. It recently announced an expansion of its manufacturing, office and lab facilities and plans to double the number of employees in the Research Triangle Park to 200 people over the next year. StrideBio also closed $81.5 million in Series B financing to translate next-generation gene therapies into the clinic.
  • Seal the Seasons works with farmers on a state-by-state basis to freeze their produce in season and offer it year-round in local grocery stores. The company was founded by Carolina doctoral student Patrick Mateer in 2014 and has achieved national expansion with its product now sold in more than 4,000 retail locations. It recently reported a brand sales leap of 150 percent on a year-over-year basis.
  • Advanced Chemotherapy Technologies is developing novel approaches to local drug delivery, which includes an implantable delivery system designed to work with laser-like precision. Founded on technology originally developed at UNC-Chapel Hill by professors Joseph DeSimone and Jen Jen Yeh, the company received a $4 million National Institutes of Health grant to pursue treatment for locally advanced non-resectable pancreatic cancer.
  • EATS2SEATS, which was founded by recent Carolina alumnus Mary Laci Motley when she was a student in 2019, uses mobile technology and an innovative approach to staffing operations to allow nonprofits to conveniently sign up to work concessions stands at sports arenas – in a way that fits their schedules, staffing capacities and fundraising goals. The venture won the 2021 ACC InVenture Prize Peoples Choice Award.
  • Mucommune is a pre-clinical stage company developing “muco-trapping” monoclonal antibodies to immobilize viruses, bacteria and sperm. Founded by professor Sam Lai at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, the startup has also recently licensed a technology from Lai’s lab that uses the precision targeting of monoclonal antibodies for a new type of female contraception.
  • LiRA, a startup founded by graduate students, develops lip-reading software to empower voiceless individuals and advance the quality of their medical care. This fall, the company took home top prize in the Covintus Tech Tank pitch competition, a technology-focused accelerator designed to groom startup founders. LiRA also participated in the Innovate Carolina Dreamers-Who-Do summer program and received a sponsorship to hire interns focused on business development, marketing and software development.
  • NALA Systems is a cleantech startup company, making the reverse osmosis process more cost-efficient. Co-founded by former UNC-Chapel Hill research associate Sue Mecham and Judy Riffle, the company recently secured two SBIR/STTR grants.