Converging to catalyze startups: Founders, students and serial entrepreneurs

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Strong startups spark and sustain economic growth and social impact in our local and global communities. And if you’re passionate about making your own startup thrive — or lending your expertise to help others build their ventures — UNC-Chapel Hill’s Venture Catalyst Program is a way for you to actively nurture young companies and provide a boost to the communities where they take root.

The Venture Catalyst Program is a collaboration between Innovate Carolina and KickStart Venture Services that allows the leaders of UNC-affiliated startups, serial entrepreneur coaches and talented graduate students to converge and collaborate. This program includes two connected opportunities:

  • 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.

If you are the leader of a UNC-affiliated startup, the Innovate Carolina and KickStart Venture Services teams will work directly with you to assess your company’s specific needs and engage you in the program in a way that will most immediately benefit you and your venture. Some companies benefit from participating immediately in the Catalyst Coaching Sessions, where they pitch their company and idea to serial entrepreneurs and get direct feedback and advice for next steps. Others find greater value by first working with a student fellow to focus on a specific project or connecting with a startup specialist on Innovate Carolina’s team to research and develop an aspect of their company prior to a Catalyst Coaching Session.

Catalyst Coaching Sessions

Through the Catalyst Coaching Sessions, you get direct access and mentorship from a virtual coaching team of serial entrepreneurs who work with Innovate Carolina and KickStart Venture Services. This group of highly experienced and successful entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs) work together to mentor and guide you as a startup entrepreneur – helping you achieve significant business milestones, build an advisory board, and make connections to a wider network of entrepreneurial experts and funders. During the coaching sessions, you pitch your startup to a panel of coaches who provide feedback and advice, working with you make connections and take next steps. The EIRs partner with student fellows, who are current MBA students, doctoral students and postdocs at UNC-Chapel Hill, to support your startup company in a variety of ways. Through this program, your company enjoys access to industry experts across many sectors, venture coaches, angel investors, and professional support provided by the student fellows.

The Catalyst Coaching Sessions are an extension of the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, which was launched in the Triangle Region of North Carolina in 2011 with a gift from The Blackstone Charitable Foundation. The network’s mission is to catalyze the regional development of the Triangle’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and strengthen economic development in the area. Harnessing the talent of a regional pool of seasoned entrepreneurs, the network created a tightly connected team of expert EIRs to support marketable innovations, created by area universities and regional startups, with the greatest potential to become high-growth companies. In six years, the network mentored 250 local companies, which raised more than $430 million in capital.

Venture Catalyst Fellows

Designed to be a unique, applied entrepreneurial experience for a select number of doctoral and MBA candidates as well as postdocs who have a passion for new venture creation, the Venture Catalyst Fellows Program provides you with a combination of educational content, experiential learning and new access into the entrepreneurial world.  

Educational. As a Venture Catalyst Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill, you’ll benefit from online lunch-and-learn sessions hosted bi-weekly by Innovate Carolina. These skill-driven trainings provide insights on primary market research, customer discovery, company valuation, due diligence and other topics. You can use insights and skills gained from these sessions in working with startup companies and entrepreneurs. Lunch-and-learn sessions for fall 2020 include:

Experiential learning. The Venture Catalyst Program identifies startups that need support and then matches them with student fellows.  As a fellow, you’ll help the ventures explore new markets, uncover potential funding, engage in customer discovery and carry out other critical functions that the company founders may not have experience with or the resources to pursue on their own. This is an excellent opportunity to develop critical skills that you may not have the chance to hone as part of your academic work. Such experiences include direct involvement with business evaluation, due diligence, working side-by-side with serial entrepreneurs, or stepping into the actual operations of startup companies. As part of the fellows program, you can expect the following timeline for experiential learning:

  • Mid-October: Faculty startup participants identified by Innovate Carolina and KickStart Venture Services. 
  • Mid-November: Fellows assigned to work with faculty startups
  • November – March: Fellows collaborate with faculty startups on exploring and developing a key project for the company. 
  • April: Fellows and faculty founders provide a joint pitch presentation on the company and project to serial entrepreneurs during a Catalyst Coaching Session.

Entrepreneurial network. As a fellow, you’ll have an opportunity to build relationships within the UNC-Chapel Hill and regional innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem. This gives you the chance to make connections and build relationships with prestigious faculty members, highly successful serial entrepreneurs, investors and leaders in private industry. By networking and establishing connections with these individuals, you will can position yourself for potential jobs and receive invaluable career guidance.

Fall 2020 Fellows

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Michaela Copp

PhD Student, UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering
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Jackie Gerhart

PhD Candidate, Eshelman School of Pharmacy; MBA Candidate, Kenan-Flagler Business School
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Wulin Jiang

PhD Candidate, Eshelman School of Pharmacy
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Amy Kranz

Postdoctoral Fellow, Eshelman School of Pharmacy
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Sisi Tran

PharmD Candidate, Eshelman School of Pharmacy

How to Apply

Innovate Carolina and KickStart Venture Services accept rolling applications for both startups looking to engage in coaching sessions or to become paired with fellows. They also accept rolling applications for graduate students and postdocs interested in becoming fellows of the program

For more information or to apply to the program as a company or student fellow, please contact, Sheryl Waddell with Innovate Carolina or Judy Prasad with KickStart Venture Services.

Related Events

If you’re a startup founder or student interested in the Venture Catalyst Program, you may also want to explore Innovate Carolina’s Innovate Now series and the KickStart Presents series. Both of these collections of online events include a variety of workshops and seminars on topics ranging from design thinking, customer discovery, fundraising, securing grants and more that can be useful to entrepreneurs involved in building their ventures.