ECU spinout Claradele wins $40K in NCBiotech pitch event

Claradele Pharmaceuticals, a Greenville startup developing a unique immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma, is the 2024 NCBiotech Venture Challenge winner. 

The Claradele selection marked the pinnacle of a months-long grooming process for North Carolina’s freshest life sciences startups. It was the culmination of the statewide Venture Pitch Showcase at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, announced Thursday evening at the sold-out Triad BioNight, also at the Grandover.

Claradele has a pure-play human pharmaceutical pitch that resonated with the selection panel in the 2024 NCBiotech Venture Challenge. The company is developing a treatment targeting a disease that occurs when the cancerous cells from a primary tumor become loose and travel through the lymph or blood system and establish a new tumor (metastatic tumor) somewhere else. Once it spreads, or metastasizes, the cancer is called metastatic melanoma. Venture Challenge

Triad BioNight is a biennial celebration of the region’s life sciences community organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Piedmont Triad Office. This year’s event was especially significant as NCBiotech observes its 40th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the Piedmont Triad Office – the first of its highly successful five-star array of regional offices.

As the winner of this second statewide Venture Challenge, Claradele will receive $40,000 and potentially even-more-valuable recognition added to its quest to commercialize its technology.  

NCBiotech previously awarded $110,000 in funding to advance the work of Claradele founder Rukiyah Van Dross-Anderson, Ph.D., East Carolina University associate professor of pharmacology & toxicology. She’s developing a topical treatment for melanoma and holds a patent for the compound that led to her startup of Claradele.

“I am proud and honored to have been awarded first place in the statewide Venture Challenge pitch competition,” said Van Dross-Anderson, who is in the Brody School of Medicine’s Center for Health Disparities and Department of Chemistry. Van Dross-Anderson also is director of the medical school’s Graduate Program and Summer Biomedical Research Program.

Van Dross-Anderson
Rukiyah Van Dross-Anderson, founder of Claradele Pharmaceuticals,
winner of the 2024 NCBiotech Venture Challenge.

“Each of the teams who participated in this challenge were provided with resources including a pitch coach, market research reports, and entrepreneurial expertise. This allowed our team to develop a pitch deck that told our company’s story and presented the therapeutic potential of our product. As a result of this experience, I have gained knowledge that will fuel the growth and development of our company. I am thankful to have represented Eastern North Carolina, and I look forward to nurturing the connections made during the Triad BioNight event.”

Like Van Dross-Anderson, all the NCBiotech Venture Challenge startup entrepreneurs worked closely with mentors throughout the Challenge, gaining expert advice on how to take a product to market from companies and leaders who have been there before.

“The Claradele Pharmaceuticals team was highly engaged throughout the Venture Challenge competition,” said Mark Phillips, NCBiotech’s vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the Eastern Office. “They leveraged the provided resources, listened to their mentors’ expertise and crafted a two-minute pitch to turn their innovation story into progress toward commercialization.”

Randall Johnson, executive director of the NCBiotech Southeast Office in Wilmington, initiated the NCBiotech Venture Challenge program as a regional effort to support local biotechnology startups in southeastern North Carolina. Two years ago, NCBiotech expanded the competition to involve five of its six regions, not including the Research Triangle.

This year Johnson started a “pre-venture” support program aimed at helping to commercialize university researchers’ most compelling life sciences-related ideas. That pilot project involved three scientists at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Ying Wang, Ph.D., an associate professor, won the top prize in that inaugural competition, using a new AI tool to design a “once-and-for-all” long-lasting universal influenza vaccine to eliminate the need for annual flu shots. NCBiotech plans to introduce that program statewide.

Spotlighting life sciences innovators

NCBiotech is invested in the academic and commercial Challenge programs to maintain the “lumen level” as the regional offices spotlight innovative life sciences research activities across the state that are outside the commonly recognized Research Triangle. These Challenge programs help open doors for participating entrepreneurs and academicians to access commercialization opportunities.

“We had a great selection of applications for this year’s NCBiotech Venture Challenge, covering a broad range of biotech-related activities,” said NCBiotech’s Phillips. “The last several months have provided a great opportunity for the ventures to receive intense mentoring and an opportunity to work with a coach to refine their pitch in preparation for the Challenge, as well as the ability to work with NCBiotech’s Life Science Intelligence unit to provide marketing research assistance.” 

In addition to Claradele’s first-place win, the four other finalist companies that won prize money in the NCBiotech Venture Pitch Showcase include:

  • Second place: Three Strands Recovery Wear, of Winston-Salem, $25,000. It’s commercializing a bra for women undergoing mastectomy, to mitigate the risk of postsurgical complications. It’s registered with the FDA as a class 1 medical device.  
  • Third place, DwellSafe, of Arden, $15,000. It’s developing a computerized virtual platform that blends technology and medical expertise to remotely evaluate people’s homes and help reduce the likelihood of falls, especially among older adults.
  • Fourth place, Druid Agriculture Inc., of Charlotte, $10,000. It’s commercializing the Druid SERRA System, a camera system enabled by artificial intelligence that allows farmers to monitor their crops from anywhere. 
  • Fifth place, Nuream, of Wilmington, $10,000. It’s developing a pillowcase (a Fabric as a Sensor (FaaS) pillow covering) to collect EEG information and help improve restorative sleep.

The winner of the 2022 inaugural statewide Venture Challenge was Winston-Salem-based Plakous Therapeutics. Plakous is building upon its Venture Challenge experience and winnings to focus development of its cell-free, human placenta-derived regenerative bio-therapeutics. Plakous CEO Robert Boyce was a member of this year’s independent statewide panel of judges.

Venture Challenge partners provide support 

In total, this year’s NCBiotech Venture Challenge is providing $330,000 in non-dilutive funding for 17 North Carolina life sciences ventures and university technologies. That includes the $100,000 awarded to the five statewide Venture Challenge winners, plus $230,000 already distributed to regional finalists.

NCBiotech partnered with organizations across the state to support the contestants as they prepared their 2024 regional and statewide pitches. These partners include:

  • Cabarrus Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship 
  • East Carolina University
  • Flywheel Coworking
  • Hatch
  • Hatch Coworking
  • Innovate Charlotte
  • Launch Greensboro
  • NC IDEA
  • Pitt County Economic Development
  • Small Business Technology Development Center
  • The University of North Carolina Wilmington
  • UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Winston Starts

Read our previous Venture Challenge coverage:

Five life sciences startups vie for $100K NCBiotech Venture Challenge prizes | North Carolina Biotechnology Center

2024 NCBiotech Venture Challenge symbolizes four decades of NC’s life sciences evolution | North Carolina Biotechnology Center

Jim Shamp, NCBiotech Writer
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