Innovator of the Year

Dr. Nancy Allbritton receives UNC-Chapel Hill’s Inventor of the Year Award, inspires future entrepreneurs to defy skeptics

If there’s one invention Dr. Nancy Allbritton is hiding from the world, it might be a new kind of clock that gives her more than 24 hours to work each day, while the rest of the world struggles to keep pace. How else does she get it all done?

That’s at least what other UNC-Chapel Hill researchers and campus leaders might have been thinking as they gathered to honor Allbritton for her productive portfolio of work, translating lab-born university research ideas into a bevy of successful commercial ventures. Allbritton, a Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair of the joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, has co-founded four startup companies and holds 11 patents, with 8 more pending. Those accomplishments, which grew from her diverse, multidisciplinary approach to research, recently earned her the prestigious Inventor of the Year award from UNC-Chapel Hill.

4 companies founded

11 patents received, with 8 more pending

$1 million in revenue returned to UNC through Allbritton’s startups


47% increase in U.S. patents issued

133% increase in IP-based startups formed

73% increase in licensing revenue

5-Year Comparison (2012-16 vs. 2007-11)

While receiving the award on Thursday, April 20 during Carolina’s annual Celebration of Inventorship event hosted by the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development’s Office of Commercialization and Economic Development, Allbritton shared the lessons she’s learned during decades of work creating university-based startups stemming from her research at UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of California at Irvine. Her research includes advancements in biomedical applications such as cell sorting, cell cloning, organ-on-a-chip platforms and cell signaling evaluation.

Nancy Allbritton, UNC/NC State Department of Biomedical Engineering; Jeffrey Johnson, UNC Department of Chemistry

Translating research into commercial enterprises all starts with an inquisitive mind for cutting-edge science and hard work, Allbritton told attendees, who included other UNC researchers who were also recognized for receiving patents in 2016. In total, 45 researchers from Carolina were up for this year’s recognition.

“In 2002, I gave more than 100 talks in one year. I had a regular day job, and this was my hobby on the side,” says Allbritton, describing her early efforts to launch her first venture Protein Simple (acquired by Bio-Techne in 2014). The company provides protein analysis tools to help researchers gain a better understanding of proteins and their role in disease. “I flew all around the country talking to the pharma industry and venture capitalists, and I learned an amazing amount as the pitch got better and better.”

Allbritton explained that launching a company also requires ample patience. It’s a lesson she learned firsthand, working 14 years for the successful exit of Protein Simple. She reflected that, as time passes, the ventures will evolve along with the roles, involvement and stakes of the scientist founders. As more investors become involved, for instance, researchers often see their shares of the company decrease over time, so they should maintain the proper outlook. “I’ve learned that a miniscule piece of a gigantic pie is way better than a gigantic piece of a miniscule pie,” she says.

On the Entrepreneurial Journey
Keeping the right perspective throughout the entrepreneurial journey is important, Allbritton says, encouraging others to view it as a rollercoaster that often presents short-term failures. The keys for researchers, she notes, are to use those failures as learning experiences, to keep pushing forward and to find opportunities to make smart changes. UNC Provost Jim Dean also echoed Allbritton’s emphasis on transformation – finding new solutions to problems – during his opening remarks.

“UNC has an ever-stronger innovation ecosystem that helps our faculty, students, staff and community members lead change – through the translation of their novel ideas into practical benefit to help make our world better,” says Dean. “We’re pleased to recognize Dr. Allbritton for her distinguished career and achievements in innovation and commercialization.”

Nancy Allbritton, Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair of the joint Department of Biomedical Engineering
“Keep going and keep innovating. Just because someone tells you you’re crazy, don’t believe them. They may be right, but go ahead, give it a shot and try it.”

Allbritton expanded on the importance of embracing and leading change, remarking that researchers should be flexible enough to listen and learn from others. She recounted a technology challenge she first encountered with an earlier venture, Intellego Corporation. Her invention used lasers, which, despite the cutting-edge nature of the science, a vice president of a biomedical company advised Allbritton and her team to abandon and rethink.

She listened and applied that advice when working on a later company called Cell Microsystems, replacing the laser technology with needles that are both more cost-effective and simpler for biologists to use.  “The simpler and more robust you can make something, the more they’re going to want to use it,” she says.

And that ability to adapt – to find a simpler way – was a lesson that’s paid off. Cell Microsystems, which develops cell separation and isolation tools, had revenue of $2.2 million from 2012 to 2016, with revenue projections of $1.6 million in 2017. “It’s a win-win all around for the University and the company,” Allbritton notes. “Approximately $1 million has flowed back to UNC in various types of funds.”

Always a Team Effort
Finding the simplest, most effective and customer-friendly approach to the science is a fundamental part of Allbritton’s success commercializing research. But there’s nothing she emphasizes more than the concept of teamwork. As she remarks, launching a venture requires a team approach and a community of support – student researchers in the lab, mentors, funders, and company executives involved in technology, manufacturing and managing the business.

“It’s always a team effort. There’s no way you’re doing any of this by yourself, period,” she says. “We’re getting a lot of help from a lot of places – from the State of North Carolina and UNC. There are a lot of people who gave us advice.”

One key advisor who is critical to the success of a startup team, Allbritton emphasized, is legal counsel. “Love your lawyer,” she says. “Business is business, and investors may not be interested in your cool science or new ideas,” she remarks. As different people come into the venture and want to maximize stock value, and when there are new partnerships or changes in leadership as the startup grows, scientists need a strong legal guidance and a voice to ensure the right decisions are made. That makes having an effective legal team essential, Allbritton advises.

It’s the constant focus on building a team dynamic and working together – whether with lawyers, other researchers, business partners and a community of contacts – to push new ideas to the edge that keeps the innovation engine running, Allbritton says. “The best way to start a company is with other people,” she says. “You split the workload, and it becomes a group effort and more vibrant because other people have ideas and come from other viewpoints.”

That kind of diversity in perspectives, research and scholarship is vital, says Jeffrey Johnson, PhD, the A. Ronald Gallant Distinguished Professor and chair of the chemistry department at UNC, who introduced Allbritton and was also honored for receiving a 2016 patent.

“Nancy is pulling in research expertise from a lot of different areas,” Johnson says. “That has been very fertile ground for scientific scholarship and has fed into phenomenal entrepreneurial activities.” Those fields of research inlclude cell biology and physiology, chemistry, biomedical engineering, physics and material science.

The latest pursuit in her diverse set of research and commercial interests is launching a new UNC-based company called Altis Biosystems. This emerging venture has developed a patent-pending stem cell technology, recreating the human intestinal epithelium for compound screening and microbiome research. The goal is to make drug discovery faster, cheaper and safer and to reduce the need for animal testing.

The work at Altis is centered on the idea that bacteria in gut help control our immune systems, metabolism, cardiovascular health and mental function. Those are issues Allbritton believes she and her team can help with – and they’re taking the same advice she offers to researchers who are just getting started.

“Keep going and keep innovating,” says Allbritton. “Just because someone tells you you’re crazy, don’t believe them. They may be right, but go ahead, give it a shot and try it.”