How are a new group of UNC graduate students and postdoctoral fellows accelerating the pace of progress for faculty inventors-turned-entrepreneurs? The insights they deliver are adding up to breakthrough therapies, disruptive treatments and novel technologies that are moving faster from lab to real life.
An ambitious group of faculty startup founders at UNC-Chapel Hill have set out to use their research and discoveries to solve economic, medical and social challenges – and they’re turning to student fellows from a new experiential learning entrepreneurship program to make their next steps possible. The Venture Catalyst Program developed by KickStart Venture Services and Innovate Carolina graduated its first cohort of student fellows, who spent six months – beginning in fall 2020 – working side-by-side with faculty founders to develop business strategies for moving scientific, technological and social-driven ideas to market where they can solve real human problems.
The solutions they’re chasing are both intriguing and intrepid: providing more accessible, affordable cancer care in low-to-middle-income countries, creating therapies that better target problematic genes without causing toxicity and negative side effects, using artificial intelligence to help basketball players improve their shooting; and creating more efficient and affordable therapies for people with speech disorders, to name a few.
To help faculty solve the problems that they’re passionate about, a set of 10 student fellows worked with KickStart Venture Services, the Innovate Carolina team and nine faculty-founded startups to engage in customer discovery, explore new markets, uncover potential funding and work on other critical projects. For the faculty, the program represents the chance to gain assistance on company plans and functions that they may not have past experience with or the resources to pursue independently. Faculty can also get direct coaching from serial entrepreneurs through the program’s startup coaching sessions. And for the student fellows – who range from MBA and doctoral students to postdocs – the experience is part research endeavor, part entrepreneurial training ground.
“We’re very focused on developing innovation talent – the skills, practices and mindset of our undergraduate, graduate and professional students and postdocs who will take these innovations forward and become entrepreneurs themselves,” said Michelle Bolas, associate vice chancellor for innovation strategy and programs, whose Innovate Carolina team together with KickStart Venture Services launched the program in Fall 2020. “The Venture Catalyst Program is a great model for how we can harness student STEM talent, particularly to drive innovations in biotech, biomedicine, advanced materials, big data and other sectors where UNC has a competitive advantage in research experience and areas where faculty are working at the cutting edge of technologies.”
It’s the learning-by-doing experience described by Bolas that gives fellows in the program a chance to make an immediate, tangible difference to the heart of the startups’ businesses. As the first cohort concluded in April 2021, the fellows presented their projects and findings to their faculty mentors, external advisors, and the KickStart and the Innovate Carolina team. A common thread of insight among many of the fellows included the value of looking at the market from the customer’s perspective.
“The most important lesson I learned in this process is the value of talking with your customers and seeking out conversations with competitors,” said Amy Kranz, a postdoctoral fellow who worked with Elipsys, a sports technology company founded by exercise and sport science professor Adam Kiefer, PhD, which uses player-tracking technology and integrated analysis to improve athlete performance. “We learned our most valuable insights in customer discovery, and that’s allowed us to verify and dismiss early assumptions.”
For Kranz, customer discovery involved helping to determine whether the beachhead market for Elipsys would involve eSports or the NBA, college and direct consumer basketball markets. Michaela Copp, a third-year biomedical engineering doctoral student who worked with the firm V-Film, also saw customer discovery as a pivotal aspect of her entrepreneurial fellowship, although her customer focus involved an entirely different arena: women’s health care.
“A really big component of this has been the customer and identifying that there is an unmet need that the product that you are pursuing fills. Without that customer base, it’s hard to go places,” said Copp about her support of V-Film, a venture founded by Erin Carey, MD, MSCR, an assistant professor UNC School of Medicine, that seeks to treat chronic vulvar pain in women. “Understanding the customer and who they are – which we learned through a customer discovery workshop – was enlightening as to how important that is to driving the market for the product.”
While honing customer strategies occupied the minds of many fellows, the Venture Catalyst Program led other student fellows think and learn about other aspects of the startup life. For example, Jackie Gerhart, a doctoral candidate in pharmaceutical sciences and MBA student at Kenan-Flagler Business School, worked with Epigenos Biosciences to create a commercialization plan for a small business innovation research (SBIR) grant application. The company’s technology restores highly targeted, reversible, dose-dependent gene function in patients with genetic disease, without many of the side effects induced by other therapies. Epigenos arose from a technology developed in the laboratory of Nate Hathaway, PhD, an assistant professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, and is led by CEO Joe Ruiz.
SBIR grants are administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration and encourage small businesses to engage in federal research and development with the goal of taking innovations to market. Gerhart’s job was to create a plan that would help position Epigenos for its second SBIR grant.
Based on market research that she conducted while developing the plan, Gerhart helped Epigenos sharpen its focus on specific genetic diseases to focus on first. These include Friedreich’s ataxia, which causes a loss of coordination and premature death, and Fragile X syndrome, a disease marked by intellectual disability and autism-like behaviors. Gerhart also saw how the Venture Catalyst Program paved a new avenue of thinking for her that stretched beyond pure science into the realm of market research and finance. “In completing the research for drafting the SBIR Phase 2 commercialization plan, I found that my biggest challenge was knowing what resources to use to find all those key puzzle pieces of information to use to put together the grant,” said Gerhart. “I learned how to use a number of different resources – from BCC market research reports to Pharma Deals reports to patent searches. I’ve worked on NIH grants in the past for my PhD training, but this work especially forced me to think beyond promoting the scientific novelty to also considering financial feasibility as well.”
Feinchen Yang, a postdoc with a PhD in chemistry, worked with startup Aerem Innovations on a different federal issue: How could the company build a quality system to help its AerFrame product comply with regulations set forth by the Food and Drug Administration. Aerem is a biotech startup founded out of the lab of Devin Hubbard, PhD, a teaching associate professor of biomedical engineering, that has created a polymer-ring medical device that improves the fit and experience of wearing face masks. Certain consumer markets that the company is working with – including medical industry customers – prefer that the device secure FDA regulation.
With this task at hand, Feichen dove in to absorb long legal documents and technical requirements from the FDA, while working to coordinate conversations with consultants and suppliers. As he gained a detailed understanding of what was needed for the quality control system, Yang found that Aerem Innovations had already completed more than 50 percent of the requirements and is already making progress on finishing the rest.
“I was able to find and work with a regulatory consultant pro-bono, and my supervisors were very supportive of baby steps, which made the project much easier,” said Yang. “Next steps for this project would involve continuing to set down the requirements of this quality control system by filing for a clear classification of the device and starting to work with a regulatory consultant to build a record system.”