If you want to feel the pulse of startup activity in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, consider visiting the Cafe Carolina in Chapel Hill. Many scientific discoveries start with chemistry. But here, companies start with coffee.
On most mornings, Don Rose starts his day at Cafe Carolina, about 10 miles from Research Triangle Park and a stone’s throw from the University of North Carolina campus. At the cafe, he meets with UNC faculty, entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical industry workers or local contacts in the Triangle business community. Rose is the executive director of Carolina KickStart, a UNC program that aims to turn university medical research and discoveries into new companies. Over coffee and conversation, he finds ways to connect the university to the Triangle business community. He likens his job to a dating service.
“This is sort of a dating game; get to know people,” Rose said. “They may get involved in some way. You don’t want to get married. You just want to get to know each other.”
But these are meetings with purpose and at some point down the line, people do get involved. Dozens of companies have presented at Carolina KickStart’s annual Emerging Companies Showcase. Some of them have recruited serial entrepreneurs to their management teams. Several others have made it even further and raised angel or even venture capital money, said Rose, whose experience includes research at Glaxo Wellcome and executive positions at a number of Triangle biopharmaceutical companies.
Carolina KickStart is a program of the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute, or NCTraCS. The institute is one of 55 medical research institutions that works with others in a joint effort to improve how biomedical research is conducted across the country. The consortium is funded through the National Institutes of Health.
Rose said that NCTraCS is community based, which means it looks to work with community institutions, such as hospitals. Not everything Carolina KickStart works on becomes a company. Sometimes a discovery is a best practice that can find its way into the clinic. But Rose said that because many UNC medical school faculty members are also practicing physicians, they see problems on the front line. Solutions they develop could become companies. An example is Hibernaid, a company started by Dr. Laurence Katz, a UNC professor of emergency medicine. The company develops pharmaceuticals that lower the body’s temperature. Katz based the company on his own experience in hypothermia research as well as clinical research showing that lowering the body temperature can improve outcomes after a brain injury.
Rose attributes the entrepreneurial tenor at UNC in part to Chancellor Holden Thorp, a chemistry professor who himself is an entrepreneur. Thorp co-founded Morrisville, North Carolina company Viamet Pharmaceutials. Rose finds prospects through his outreach into the UNC community, but in many cases, physicians find him. A faculty member who has a discovery discloses that finding to the university. From there, it may go to UNC’s Office of Technology Development, which could seek a company to license it. But Rose said that in most instances, large companies aren’t looking for disruptive technologies. Disruptive technologies disrupt company systems and they also add risk. Instead, companies usually prefer incremental technologies. If licensing isn’t the appropriate route, the other option is to start a company. Rose said some faculty members want to start companies. Others prefer that Carolina KickStart bring in someone to start the company.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how many companies have been started through Carolina KickStart. Rose said that some companies have incorporated, but are a long way from being a business. And in most cases, Carolina KickStart doesn’t know that a company has incorporated because faculty members do that on their own. But Rose continues his outreach into UNC and RTP. To representatives of the business community who may not know how to navigate the university landscape, Rose sees himself as a facilitator to make the appropriate connections. Tomorrow will be another day at the cafe, another cup of coffee and perhaps the beginnings of another company.