2024 NCBiotech Venture Challenge symbolizes four decades of NC’s life sciences evolution

Regional finalists announced

The life sciences version of March Madness 2024 has just tipped off across North Carolina.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, launched the biannual, statewide NCBiotech Venture Challenge for 2024, following the success of the initiative in 2020 and 2022.

It’s a statewide pitch competition in which 14 promising life sciences startup companies outside the Research Triangle area vie for access to key startup needs such as mentoring, visibility, and cash.

NCBiotech’s regional office network includes the Southeastern Office in Wilmington, the Eastern Office in Greenville, the Piedmont Triad Office in Winston-Salem, the Greater Charlotte Office in Concord, and the Western Office in Asheville.NCBiotech Venture Challenge logo

This event is designed to spotlight North Carolina’s amazing startups across the entire state that are sometimes overlooked by media and investors.

‘Shark Tank’ for life sciences

There’s some similarity to the popular TV series “Shark Tank.” But unlike that series targeting consumer products, NCBiotech Venture Challenge companies are life sciences-related business ventures that cut a wide swath on the state’s commercial landscape.

They often bubble up from university labs. And because of North Carolina’s broadly diverse ecosystem, they can be from scientific disciplines as varied as agriculture, bioenergy, health, advanced materials, industrial biotech, technology, and marine biotech. They can also support the sector through such products and processes as equipment, technology platforms or software applications.

In recent weeks, each of the five NCBiotech regional offices has convened independent, all-volunteer, highly qualified selection committees. These committees reviewed applications from dozens of life sciences entrepreneurs to evaluate their companies and their technologies. This week the committees each picked what they considered their top two or three startups to enter the second statewide cycle in this biennial competition.

Those companies (listed below) are now entering a “regional assistance” period, getting valuable mentoring and other support until, at the end of May, NCBiotech announces the five pitch winners, one from each region.

These five regional winners will receive intense mentoring and networking opportunities. This is help such as market research from NCBiotech’s Life Science Intelligence team, a share of monetary awards totaling $40,000 in each region for a total of $200,000 non-dilutive funding statewide, and support partnerships with local incubators and accelerators, plus regional promotion.

They will then make their pitches for an additional $100,000 in total funding at the statewide Venture Pitch Showcase, a few hours before the June 27, 2024, Triad BioNight event. From the Venture Pitch Showcase, a statewide overall winning company will be revealed and celebrated as part of the Triad BioNight festivities.

Program exemplifies NC’s 40 years of life sciences growth

“This is another wonderful opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs as we seek to grow the life sciences in North Carolina,” said Mark Phillips, vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the Eastern Office. “When civic and business leaders established NCBiotech 40 years ago as the world’s first state-funded independent life sciences economic development corporation, our state only had about five life sciences companies.

“But they laid the groundwork that enables us to now support 830 companies and continue to expand it with programs like this Venture Challenge. It helps us compete with, and share with, the best the world has to offer. The NCBiotech Venture Challenge is multi-layered and custom-tailored to our state’s uniquely diverse and collaborative life sciences ecosystem.”

Randall Johnson, executive director of NCBiotech’s Southeastern Office, initiated the NCBiotech Venture Challenge concept in 2020 with a pilot project in his region. Its success led to the statewide version two years later in 2022, and now, to this year’s program.

Southeastern Office tests new “Pre-venture” program

It’s an evolution underscored by this year’s launch of Johnson’s pre-venture pilot program from the Southeastern Office targeting university research – potentially commercial ideas he believes that are sometimes overlooked as too nascent for commercialization.

Starting with idea development from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Johnson is building a “mind-to-marketplace” support concept based on what he learned in piloting the Venture Challenge concept from the Southeastern Office in 2020.

This new project is a “Pre-venture” trial program involving three technologies emanating from UNCW research labs. NCBiotech is supporting Johnson’s push with funding like that provided when he launched the Venture Challenge program.

“We have excellent scientists in our university research facilities with important revelations that have real-world applications,” said Johnson. “So we’re going to use this ‘Pre-Venture’ program to target some of these examples.” (Three of them are listed below).

Piedmont Triad NCBiotech Venture Challenge finalists:

BRINTER Inc. is developing 3D-printed human cartilage-like scaffolds called BioMods for facial reconstruction and orthopedics. They’re designed to disrupt the $10 billion+ tissue reconstruction/repair market. Primary applications are rhinoplasty and partial meniscus tears, to replace the painful and costly surgeries of harvesting the patient's tissue with the use of allografts or plastic/metal materials.
Deep Creek Pharma LLC is developing a DNA-based fluoropyrimidine polymer therapy platform licensed from Wake Forest University that may be an improved colorectal cancer (CRC) therapy alternative. CRC causes about 50,000 deaths a year in the U.S., usually because it has metastasized to the liver. Deep Creek is anticipating a clinical trial in 2025.

Three Strands Recovery Wear was founded by Leah Wyrick in 2018 during her freshman year at Wake Forest University. Motivated by her mother Nancy's journey through a breast cancer diagnosis in 2016, which involved a mastectomy and three subsequent surgeries due to complications, Leah witnessed her challenges of recovery, particularly concerning drains and uncomfortable bras. Three Strands has now created FDA-approved women’s recovery wear to mitigate the risk of postsurgical complications.

Eastern Office NCBiotech Venture Challenge finalists:

Claradele Pharmaceuticals is in preclinical development and working on IND-enabling studies of a unique immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma that uses the cancer cell’s cellular stress signature to eliminate the cancer cell and prompt the immune system to seek out and destroy other cancer cells in the body. 

Limulus Biomedical is developing an aquaculture system for sustainable hemolymph collection from the Atlantic horseshoe crab. This crab’s blood is crucial to sterility testing of medical devices and pharmaceutical products. However, current practices are endangering these vital creatures. Limulus’s aquaculture platform is targeting the long-term sustainability of the Atlantic horseshoe crab.
MoZeek Bio is developing an at-home fecal diagnostic test to identify neurodegenerative disease risk.

Southeastern Office NCBiotech Venture Challenge finalists:

Boreas Monitoring Solutions is developing the CryoScout weight-based monitoring system to enable remote, real-time monitoring of low-temperature storage tanks used in lab settings.

Nuream is developing a Fabric as a Sensor (FaaS) pillow covering to collect EEG information and help improve restorative sleep.

Predicate Healthcare Performance Group is developing a real-time open diagnostic platform using wearable biosensors and natural language processing for early detection and treatment of critical conditions such as sepsis.

Western Office NCBiotech Venture Challenge finalists:

Equivalent offers design software that revolutionizes graphic innovation by transforming static images into smart graphics, instantly adaptable to user preferences. Its patent-pending technology addresses challenges faced by low vision and blind users, enhancing accessibility through sound and personalized settings. By converting images into code, it optimizes speed, compatibility with dark mode, and mobile screen layouts.

DwellSafe is offering a computerized virtual platform that can blends technology and medical expertise to remotely evaluate people’s homes and help reduce the likelihood of falls, especially among older adults. In the U.S., falls among the elderly not only threaten individual well-being but also impose a $50 billion burden on our healthcare system annually. DwellSafe bypasses the limitations and costs of traditional in-person visits, enabling seniors to safely age in place. 

Arclet is a business-to-business Software-as-a-Service (B2B SaaS) platform that responds to a critical need among health communicators: the ability to quickly produce and strategically share evidence-based and culturally competent health information that engages local communities.

Greater Charlotte NCBiotech Venture Challenge finalists:

Druid Agriculture Inc.'s Druid SERRA System is a camera system enabled by artificial intelligence that allows farmers to monitor their crops from anywhere. The system can detect changes in plant health and alert farmers when their crops need of attention, providing a hassle-free and cost-effective way to keep tabs on their investments and maximize their yields.

Margik Inc. sells specialty lighting technology tailored for agriculture and greenhouses, with up to 30% improvement in power efficiency.

Southeastern Office NCBiotech Pre-Venture Profiles from UNCW:

Ying Wang, Ph.D., associate professor, using a new AI tool to design a “once-for-all” long-lasting universal influenza vaccine to eliminate the need for annual flu shots.

Joseph Covi, Ph.D., associate professor, developing a toxicology kit using dormant zooplankton embryos that reside in the sediments of estuaries and lakes as test organisms. These embryos do not produce wastes until you wake them up after the desired exposure time. The kits can be used as a simple and fun educational tool to let kids test the impacts of their household chemicals on animals that live in their waterways.

Christopher Halkides, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is developing new antifungals.

Jim Shamp, NCBiotech Writer
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