Carolina leaders from the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, UNC Health, UNC Research and Innovate Carolina pilot a partnership with High Alpha Innovation – aiming to create digital health startups better positioned for success.
Gaining traction over the past few years, venture studios build companies rapidly from start to finish. They invest pre-seed capital and actively support the startup’s founding team to get startups to their first venture capital funding. This approach is novel for universities but possibly quite attractive to a university’s world-renowned research faculty in commercializing their innovative research. Universities are good at providing programs and connections for faculty entrepreneurs to help them launch new ventures, but often lack additional resources to better position and support those startups for ongoing success. This creates a gap that venture studios can help fill.
“Carolina has discovered and sees something through implementing this very novel, new model to translate and commercialize health research,” says Bob Dieterle, managing director of the Digital Health Venture Studio at the Eshelman Institute for Innovation at UNC-Chapel Hill and an entrepreneur-in-residence with Innovate Carolina. “It’s very risky to get a company launched because so many fail, but with a venture studio, almost all companies succeed.”
Eager to give UNC startups a promising new avenue to explore, Dieterle encouraged leaders at the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, Innovate Carolina, UNC Health and UNC Research to come together and pilot the venture studio approach. At their core, venture studios combine a company-building function (ideation and concept validation, business model design, and founder recruitment) with a source of initial capital, providing speed, financial advantage and functional support to emerging startups at launch and in their initial growth period.
Dieterle identified a strong venture studio partner in High Alpha Innovation, which combines the speed and learning ability of a startup with the knowledge and scale of a large organization. High Alpha Innovation co-creates advantaged startups to solve compelling problems. In partnership with corporations and universities, the firm generates and validates business ideas, sources entrepreneurial founders, launches and nurtures companies to scale, and establishes permanent startup creation capabilities.
The pilot with High Alpha Innovation presents a new possibility for tapping into industry-driven entrepreneurial expertise that can accelerate a pipeline of potential UNC-based ventures.
25 promising digital health concepts from across the University and health care system came to take part in the High Alpha Innovation pilot. Participants came from UNC Health, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Adams School of Dentistry, the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, the School of Medicine, and the Gillings School of Global Public Health. From the 13-week pilot program, two concepts were chosen to go through Sprint Week, a high-stakes, all hands-on-deck forcing function where teams work non-stop to test assumptions and build confidence for a go or no-go launch decision.
Following sprint week, a concept based on the expertise of a UNC researcher at the UNC School of Medicine and UNC Medical Center Eric Weimer, PhD, and Assistant Professor of Mathematics in the Carolina Center for Interdisciplinary Applied Mathematics Katherine Newhall, PhD, emerged as the startup venture – now named Epulate – that High Alpha Innovation and the University would propel forward. The venture concept identified an unmet need for matching organ donors to patients in a quicker, more precise way. Currently, transplant organs and patients are matched in a labor-intensive manual process based on point-solutions and scientists’ judgment. The solution is an emerging AI-driven modeling and workflow startup, enabling transplant lab directors to match donor organs to immunologically compatible patients by accessing a national database, imputing types and recommending recipients.
High Alpha Innovation will work with the startup, leading the process for hiring the CEO, the chief technology officer and other key staff. High Alpha Innovation will also provide services including HR, payroll, financial services, bookkeeping, and financing, as well as branding and marketing services to help the startup tell its story. The High Alpha Innovation team will continue to engage with principal investigators, confirm health system pilots, recruit a management team, and finalize the startup for launch.