Innovation in a crisis: How do faculty use mentoring and venture services?

Even during a global pandemic, faculty continue to create and innovate. Learn how Innovate Carolina supports faculty through its diverse resources, connections and partnerships as faculty seek to disrupt with innovative ideas and research-driven solutions.

December 14, 2020
By Shellie Edge
Photography by Sarah Daniels

During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill faculty find that they must not only innovate faster, but in a much different way. In this new normal, Innovate Carolina – the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship – has rapidly reimagined and brought online a diverse hub of programs, services and tools designed to support faculty innovators who are passionate about making a social and economic impact with their ideas. Many are focused on solving COVID-related problems, while others have entrepreneurial ideas that demand new thinking in a world where higher levels of virtual connections and interdisciplinary collaboration are essential.

Through a three-part series, Innovate Carolina will explore how faculty are engaging with our innovation hub in new ways as they develop ideas, projects and ventures during the pandemic period. We’ll take a look at the resources that some of the University’s most innovative researchers are using to advance ideas through design thinking and ideation, entrepreneurial mentoring and startup services, and opportunities to move innovations to scale.

Part Two: Entrepreneurial mentoring and venture services  

From startup coaching services and virtual mentoring networks to deep-dive workshops that create a sharper understanding of customers, faculty startup founders at UNC-Chapel Hill are tapping into new ways to make their venture thrive. 

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, faculty are using design thinking to work differently as they develop solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. But as they wrap up the design thinking phase, what next steps should they take in moving their ideas forward toward viable solutions? What if they need startup advice? How do they carry out customer discovery? What’s the best way to find a mentor?

Fresh off the ideation phase, faculty innovators often find themselves in need of entrepreneurial mentoring and venture services. Innovate Carolina, the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship, offers an innovation services hub to help faculty translate ideas into action and take their innovations further, faster. 

Matching ideas to markets 

One of the wisest moves faculty make before venturing too far with their ideas is making sure there are viable markets to pursue in the first place. When working on early innovations, questions abound: Has someone already worked on this idea, or something like it? Would anyone want to buy this? Are there funding avenues that could help with development? 

Helping faculty answer these questions is where Innovate Carolina’s patent landscaping and market research teams comes in. Members of this team meet with faculty, assist with research and create custom reports on the competitive landscape, market conditions and potential funding sources. 

“The patent landscaping and market research service team provides value to faculty by identifying ‘open spaces’ for innovation in conjunction with customer requirements. By combining the power of the patent landscape with market analysis, we bridge the gap between laboratory discovery and research translation, helping our innovators reach the full potential of knowledge sharing via commercial and social methods,” says Cindy Reifsnider, Director, Research and Impact Team, Innovate Carolina. “Faculty time is at a premium in research and teaching, so we support them through business development research and strategy.”

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““The patent landscaping and market research service team provides value to faculty by identifying ‘open spaces’ for innovation in conjunction with customer requirements. By combining the power of the patent landscape with market analysis, we bridge the gap between laboratory discovery and research translation, helping our innovators reach the full potential of knowledge sharing via commercial and social methods,””
Cindy Reifsnider

Startup coaching and mentoring services

For faculty working on startups, determining that their ideas have strong market potential is an important initial step. Yet, to put their ventures into motion, many faculty – the vast majority of whom have never started a business – seek advice from those who have. Sheryl Waddell, Innovate Carolina’s global network director, works with faculty to get them the entrepreneurial mentoring and venture services they need as they translate their ideas into practical benefit.

“We work with faculty members to understand where their venture is in the innovation journey and what their specific needs are so we can provide them with the best resources and connections,” says Waddell. “Depending on what stage they are focused on, we match them to the right service offering, whether it’s startup coaching services, customer discovery worships or one-on-one mentorship.”

Waddell helps UNC faculty-founded and other UNC-affiliated companies actively work on their ideas by connecting them with a network of serial entrepreneurs and startup founders who can help with consulting and startup virtual services. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Waddell has been able to expand the Innovate Carolina network of startup coaches for UNC startup founders, connecting them to experts from cities across the U.S., including Boston, New York, San Francisco and Chicago. 

Another way Innovate Carolina is helping faculty get the coaching they need is through a new mentorship program offered by the Carolina Angel Network (CAN). Launched alongside KickStart Venture Services (KVS) and Launch Chapel Hill, CAN’s mentorship program gives UNC faculty founders exclusive access to its mentor network. The CAN network is comprised of successful alumni, donors and friends of Carolina who not only invest in early-stage Carolina-connected companies, but are also fervent about helping them with keen advice. 

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““We work with faculty members to understand where their venture is in the innovation journey and what their specific needs are so we can provide them with the best resources and connections,” ”
Sheryl Waddell

“Through our network, UNC alums and faculty gain valuable access to insight and advice from seasoned entrepreneurs who are passionate about helping early-stage companies,” says CAN Co-Managing Director Chelsea Eshraghi. “Mentorship and connections with CAN members help position entrepreneurs for success with their startups.”  

Venture Catalyst Program

Based on the connections faculty innovators make, they may identify new projects or marketplaces to pursue. And by taking advantage of a new program from Innovate Carolina, that’s not a journey that faculty have to navigate alone. 

The Venture Catalyst Program provides a conduit for leaders of UNC-affiliated startups, serial entrepreneur coaches and graduate students to converge and collaborate. A partnership between Innovate Carolina and KickStart Venture Services (KVS), the Venture Catalyst Program began as a pilot program to support faculty who had little-to-no training in how to conduct initial customer discovery. Over the summer, Waddell and her team piloted the concept by relaunching a network of entrepreneurs previously formed through the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network.

As a result of the summer pilot’s popularity, the Venture Catalyst Program is now an official program, offering two connected opportunities for faculty founders: 

  • Catalyst Coaching Sessions connect UNC-affiliated startup founders with a team of serial entrepreneurs who provide direct expert advice, connections and mentorship via pitch-based coaching. 
  • Venture Catalyst Fellows are a select number of Carolina MBA students, doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows who receive educational and experiential learning opportunities as they work directly with startups to uncover market opportunities and solve business challenges.

Providing coaching sessions virtually offers a flexible way for faculty to engage. Participating faculty have instant, ongoing access to experts who are willing to connect and provide guidance and insight on how to take the next step with investor networks. 

The sessions also allow faculty to pitch their ideas and ventures virtual to the network’s entrepreneurial coaches. As part of the pitches, faculty present one or two asks. The serial entrepreneurs listen to the pitch, pose questions, and provide feedback, including whether faculty members should look into different markets, or if they should be aware of competitors that have similar ideas or products.  

“What’s critical about these coaching sessions is not only the feedback, but the opportunity for the entrepreneurs to positively impact the trajectory of our faculty’s success by connecting them with subject matter experts they can potentially consider for their board or management team,” says Waddell. “Nine times out of ten, management is the missing piece within the faculty’s venture, so these experts can potentially connect them with the right investors and strategic partners.”

More than 10 faculty-founded companies have begun participating in the Venture Catalyst Program, which accepted its first cohort of 11 student fellows during fall 2020. The fellows are a select group of Carolina MBA students, doctoral students and postdocs who receive educational and experiential learning opportunities as they work directly with the faculty startups to uncover market opportunities and solve business challenges.

“Starting a company, Perotech Inc., from scratch for an academic professor was really new to me, since I have never been trained to do so,” says Jinsong Huang, Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor, UNC Applied Physical Sciences. “The Venture Catalyst Program is basically a textbook for me. Whenever I have questions, I turned to Kick-start staff members for help and they always provide professional suggestions or connect me with someone who can help.”

Customer discovery workshops

Customer discovery workshops are also a great way Innovate Carolina helps faculty keep moving through the early stages of their innovation journey. Often, faculty founders find it difficult to understand the potential dynamics of their customer: who they are, the problems they’re trying to solve, and what they really need to solve them. 

“The customer discovery process allows entrepreneurs and startup founders to move products out of the lab and into the market by talking to potential customers, partners, and competitors early on in their development stage,” says Mireya McKee, interim director of KVS. “This way, they can tackle the challenges and incorporate customer feedback to create successful innovations.”

Faculty member Rahima Benhabbour, founder of startup AnelleO, has worked with Innovate Carolina and KickStart Venture Services on a market needs assessment

To help faculty with this need, Innovate Carolina kicked off a series of customer discovery sessions this fall with expert Chris Morrison

“AnelleO has benefited immensely from support by KickStart Venture Services and Innovate Carolina since it was founded four years ago,” says Rahima Benhabbour, founder of AnelleO and Assistant Professor, UNC Biomedical Engineering, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. “Our team has worked closely with Chris Morrison to develop a market needs assessment for our secondary indication. This involved developing an interview guide and conducting multiple interviews with clinicians at UNC and Duke to define the unmet need and possible product/market fit for AnelleO’s 3D printed IVR. This was a critical step for AnelleO’s growth and a collaboration that provided AnelleO with the skill set to conduct future primary market research.”  

Over five, two-hour work sessions, faculty learn how to uncover customer problems worth solving. They’re building up their own customer knowledge and market intelligence to support product design, learning valuable lessons about building companies and fundraising, and gaining insights on the customer profile of their early adopters.

“Customer discovery is a vital process for creating a successful startup. This activity is even more important for emerging startups based on academic research, which tend to be based on novel technologies but have little or no market data available,” adds McKee, interim director of KVS. “A common mistake startups make is to focus on the technological innovations and the problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need. This approach eventually leads to startup failure in most cases.”  

As part of the workshop, faculty members implement and conduct interviews as well as analyze the data they collect, honing their skills for analyzing the answers provided through their research.

“This particular workshop is really special and unlike others I have seen,” says Waddell. “The sessions offer a deep understanding of how to conduct interviews, what questions to ask, what should be accomplished during interviews, and what goals to set.”


In part three, learn how Innovate Carolina helps faculty with opportunities to move their innovations to scale through innovation spaces and funding.