The First In Venture Studio is a partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill, the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, UNC Health and industry partner High Alpha Innovation, a leading venture builder headquartered in Indianapolis that partners with large corporations and universities.
The studio – which aims to launch more than 10 digital health startups over the next three years – facilitates an extensive 16-week program over the summer to identify and conduct detailed diligence on promising ideas and technologies developed by faculty, staff and providers from the university and health system. Each year at the conclusion of the program, the venture studio hosts Sprint Week at the university. Sprint Week is a three-and-a-half-day, all-hands-on-deck experience during which the two top teams from the sprint gather with High Alpha Innovation and entrepreneurial experts to further transform their venture concepts into digital health startups that are well positioned for the market.
The venture studio is focused on the rapidly growing digital health market and is an innovative approach for expanding the significant impact made by the more than 550 active UNC startups, which generated more than 100,000 jobs and $18.3 billion in revenue in 2022.
Building real ventures, really fast
In fall 2022, two teams of faculty and medical practitioners spent their time at Sprint Week huddled in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, working side-by-side with seasoned entrepreneurs, venture creation experts from High Alpha Innovation, and industry strategists from UNC Health. The goal? Rapidly transforming venture concepts into digital health ventures that are primed for investment.
During the week, the venture teams spent long days – and extended evenings – hunkered down in work sessions to conduct market research, make customer discovery calls, and build business models. All the work is done to prepare for pitch day, the week’s culminating event, when the two teams present their business cases to a group of investors assembled by First In Venture Studio. The week is designed as a forcing function for startup launch: its compressed timeline enables teams to work smart and fast, further developing their venture concepts and preparing their pitches.
Of 43 teams identified and supported this year by the venture studio, two concepts earned spots to participate in Sprint Week: Dr. Meera Udayakumar’s ReloCare team and Mindable, a team led by Johna Register-Mihalik, PhD.
“Sprint Week has been an incredibly collaborative experience,” said Register-Mihalik. “As a researcher, sometimes it takes a long time to move forward on any process, and I think in two days I’ve learned more about the potential market and environment for our strategy than I would’ve learned in six months in any other process.”
How did each team end up at sprint week? Bob Dieterle and Carol Lewis, lead teams that collaborate year-round with health researchers and practitioners like Udayakumar and Register-Mihalik who are working on innovations – ideas, side projects, pieces of intellectual property, or existing tools – that have potential to turn into successful businesses.
During a three-month period over the summer led by High Alpha Innovation, the venture studio evaluated and performed diligence on 43 teams, using a core set of questions to guide their review. Those questions help determine if there is a clear job to be done, whether there is a feasible solution, the market potential, and if there is a strong business model. The studio team prioritizes the most promising concepts through multiple selection rounds. “We evaluate the venture concepts through a venture capital lens,” said Dieterle, who notes that the concepts moving through the venture studio model are expected to attract bigger markets and have more disruptive, defensible technologies than startups that aren’t ready for venture capital investment. “We have a high bar for all the venture concepts, and we look to determine which ones are the most attractive and feasible.”
By mid-August, the studio prioritized the two teams that were most ready to participate in Sprint Week – and also enlisted the help of student interns from Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA program to work with High Alpha Innovation in preparing the teams for the final leg of the sprint. By the end of the summer, the venture teams adopted trademark-ready brands for each team, validated business concepts and market feasibility, and completed customer discovery calls to gather as much external insight as possible heading into the week.
For the teams selected, Sprint Week is a rigorous, roll-up-your-sleeves experience focused on one outcome: beginning to build advantaged, investment-ready ventures. Over the course of several days, the two teams worked long hours in groups of 10 to 12 people each. The teams consisted of faculty and physician principal investigators, High Alpha Innovation’s venture-building experts, innovation practitioners from the UNC core team, designers, and student interns from Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“This is not a deck-building exercise. We are making startups, and we are going to invite real people to quit their paying jobs to become entrepreneurs and founders of the businesses that we’re starting,” said Rob Kimball, director at High Alpha Innovation, who notes that the teams must work hard and fast to make tangible progress, smart decisions, and compelling investor pitches in just a few days.
Investing in the future
The immediate goal for teams participating in Sprint Week is securing funding from the venture studio investment committee. For the ReloCare team, the process has already resulted in a pre-seed investment from the committee. This significant funding creates immense momentum for the venture, which now becomes a real company.
“Our ReloCare team will continue with our work. We’re using this predictive tool today, will continue to do so, and will refine it further,” said Udayakumar. “I am certain there will be growing interest from other institutions expanding into the hospital-at-home space and more demand for this type of tool.”