Of the more than 800 startups created at universities across the country this year, only 35 have been handpicked as the best and earned an opportunity to showcase their work to members of the U.S. Congress.
Two of those top startups have their roots at the UNC.
“It’s a great sign,” said Tim Martin, assistant director of KickStart Ventures Services, a Carolina-based program that helps faculty turn their ideas into businesses. “It’s something that we’ve been working towards. For two of the 35 in the whole country to be from UNC-Chapel Hill is pretty special.”
Carolina’s Renovion and EpiCypher are among startups from more than two dozen universities and research institutes presenting to venture capitalists and members of Congress at the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer’s University Startups Demo Day.
Held in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 20, the event showcases the roles of universities in the formation of groundbreaking startups. It also provides a chance for companies to exhibit their work.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to tell our story on a broader scale, but also talk about how great innovations can be built out of a university and really get that foundation that they need to thrive in the marketplace,” said Dan Copeland, the CEO of Renovion.
Based in Durham, Renovion is a pre-clinical stage pharmaceutical company developing a therapy for lung transplant patients — a treatment that doesn’t yet exist for the country’s more than 10,000 lung transplant patients. The therapy is based on research by David Henke, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine in the UNC School of Medicine's division of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine.
“Lung transplant patients today have the highest mortality rate among all solid organ transplants,” said Copeland, a graduate of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA program. “There’s also no FDA approved therapy for lung transplant patients, so our goal is really to help those patients and figure out a way we can give them better outcomes.”
Carolina has played a large role throughout the company’s history. The patent for the Arina-1 treatment is licensed to Renovion by UNC-Chapel Hill, and the company received the KickStart Commercialization Award. The award, from Office of Commercialization and Economic Development’s KickStart Ventures, is a grant that provides up to $50,000 for a startup company that is attempting high-impact work.
As a company in its very early stages, Copeland said the University and its resources have been key.
“Carolina has been a great source of funding and support for us as we grow the company,” he said. “There are physicians and researchers at UNC who had this idea early on and have really fostered it over the past 10 years. The spirit of innovation at Carolina has been great for us.
“We really feel that we have a team behind our back that cares about what our team is doing. That’s helped us be successful today.”
Bioscience company EpiCypher also credits a portion of its success to the support it received at Carolina. Utilizing technology out of biochemistry and biophysics professor Brian Strahl’s lab and leveraging campus resources, EpiCypher is “Carolina-born,” CEO Sam Tetlow said.
With a team of 18 employees, EpiCypher develops and sells recombinant nucleosomes — an industry first — and other products for epigenetics and chromatin research. Drug discovery companies use the products to test new medicines during the early stages of development.
“We synthesize essential products that represent the human body and ship those to our customers,” said Tetlow, also a graduate from Kenan-Flager’s MBA program. “We’re selling a body in a bottle, and our customers use that to determine if a new medicine will work or not well before you get into human clinical trials.“
For every an order is shipped out, Tetlow said, their product saves .42 of a person’s life. EpiCypher just recently sent its 1,000th order.
One of the rare revenue-positive startups, EpiCypher has utilized federal grants available through Carolina and incubation space to get off the ground.
“We wouldn’t have been able to move to our new site off campus that has about 5,000-square-feet unless we had been able to incubate on campus for about a year and a half,” Tetlow said. “We’re a good example of a company that has leveraged all of the resources that are available at the University and a great example of a cultural shift that has gone on under [Vice Chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development] Judith Cone’s leadership of responsible innovation.”
Just four years since the founding of the company, to be called one of the best university startups and be invited to attend the University Start-ups Demo Day in D.C., is “inspiring,” Tetlow said.
“There are 4,866 active university startups in business today, and there are about 800 startups created every year out of Universities. So for us it’s validation and a recognition for the people who have worked so hard,” he said.
By Brandon Bieltz, UNC Office of Communications and Public Affairs