Five life sciences startups vie for $100K NCBiotech Venture Challenge prizes

Five startup life sciences companies have emerged as regional winners of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s 2024 statewide Venture Challenge.

The companies (listed below) are the top picks by panels of judges from each NCBiotech region outside the Research Triangle. The five winners were chosen from a field of 14 startup companies that qualified for and just completed a two-month “regional assistance” period.

Now these five regional winners will receive more intense mentoring, networking opportunities and assistance such as market research from NCBiotech’s Life Science Intelligence team. Each of the five also receives $20,000 in non-dilutive funding, partnerships with local incubators and accelerators, plus regional promotion. Those companies that didn’t win the regional competition each receive $10,000.

Venture Challenge logo

The five winners will make their pitches to vie for an additional $100,000 in total awards at the statewide Venture Pitch Showcase at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, before the June 27 Triad BioNight event. The statewide overall winning company will receive a $40,000 state-level award, with second place receiving $25,000, third place receiving $15,000, and fourth and fifth place each receiving $10,000. A panel of judges, including statewide entrepreneurial ecosystem leaders, will meet earlier that day to choose the winning order which will be revealed at the Triad BioNight festivities.

Pre-Venture Challenge

Also launched this year for the first time is a “pre-venture” pilot program developed by Randall Johnson, executive director of the NCBiotech Southeastern Office. It targets university research – potentially commercial technology innovations he believes can be advanced to the marketplace with mentoring from local experts, new communication tools for the innovators, and a relatively small amount of targeted funding.

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

This new trial program involved three technologies emanating from UNCW research labs. NCBiotech is supporting Johnson’s new push with funding that mirrors what it provided when he launched the now-established Venture Challenge program.

The winning pitch from among the three scientists entering this inaugural “Pre-Venture Challenge” event came from Ying Wang, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, for research and commercialization of a universal long-lasting flu vaccine. His lab will be awarded $20,000, and the other two labs get $10,000 each.

Wang’s pitch: Current flu vaccines must be updated annually. Scientists use computer models to forecast the flu virus strains that will circulate in the coming flu season. Due to multiple circulating strains and emergence of new variants, the efficacy of flu vaccines produced based on predictions typically ranges between 40% and 60%.

The Wang lab is using a new AI tool to design experimental vaccines to laser-focus the immune response to block the invariant part of influenza viruses that is critical for infecting human cells. The plan is to make the resulting vaccines generate universal protection against a broad range of virus variants. If they pass the tests, the new vaccines could eliminate the need for annual strain prediction and renewal of flu vaccines.

Wang had previously been awarded one of the state’s new NCInnovation grants for his work.

In total, this year’s NC BIOTECH 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 to be awarded to the five statewide Venture Challenge winners, plus the $230,000 already being 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
  • Pitt County Economic Development
  • Small Business Technology Development Center
  • The University of North Carolina Wilmington
  • UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Winston Starts


And the winners are:

The following companies are the winners of their regional competitions and will make their pitches to life sciences leaders at the June 27 Venture Pitch Showcase:

Eastern Region:

Claradele Pharmaceuticals, which is in preclinical development and working on investigational new drug-enabling studies of a unique immunotherapy for metastatic melanoma. It 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. The company founder and CEO, Rukiyah Van Dross-Anderson, Ph.D., had also been awarded one of the state’s new NCInnovation grants for his work.

“We had a great selection of venture applications for this year’s pitch challenge, covering a broad range of biotech-related activities in Eastern North Carolina,” said Mark Phillips, vice president, statewide operations and executive director of the NCBiotech Eastern Office.

He congratulated all the Venture Challenge participants, adding, “This initiative provided an opportunity to showcase the innovative research activities within the university and allowed an impressive group of entrepreneurs to participate in this challenge to progress towards the commercialization opportunities of these biotech innovations.

“The last two months have provided an opportunity for the Ventures to receive intense mentoring, 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.”

Greater Charlotte Region:

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

“Through collaborations with aligned stakeholders, we continue to build a robust innovation ecosystem in the Greater Charlotte region,” said Corie Curtis, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Office.

“Our NCBiotech Venture Challenge is an important vehicle to support our local entrepreneurs. The region is on the cusp of significant growth for innovative life science technologies as we welcome the establishment of the Wake Forest School of Medicine Charlotte and the Pearl Innovation District and optimize collaborative efforts with our partners at UNC Charlotte and Cabarrus Center for Innovation. Our top venture in the 2024 challenge, Druid Agriculture, has developed a compelling AI-enabled monitoring system to assist farmers in nurturing their crops.”  

Piedmont Triad Region:

Three Strands Recovery Wear, 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, Wyrick witnessed her mother’s challenges of recovery, particularly concerning drains and uncomfortable bras. Three Strands, now located in the Winston Starts coworking space, has created women’s recovery wear, registered with the United States Food and Drug Administration as a class I medical device, to mitigate the risk of post-surgical complications.

“This Venture Challenge has been a critical catalyst for NCBiotech to engage with our strong entrepreneurial ecosystem partners noted above,” said Nancy Johnston, executive director of NCBiotech’s Piedmont Triad Office.

“And I deeply appreciate the excellent support of service providers Novex Innovations and Wildfire Marketing Solutions, plus the two dozen accomplished volunteers who donated 150 hours in support to our three regional finalists.

“The strong commitment from each of our regional finalists to advance their innovation was impressive and inspiring as they represent the Piedmont Triad’s broad-based cluster of R&D, interwoven with healthcare solutions. The primary goal of this Venture Challenge was to help enhance their commercialization success and raise awareness of their meaningful work. We are excited to have Three Strands Recovery Wear advance to the statewide finals at Triad BioNight on June 27.”

Southeastern Region:

Nuream, which is developing a Fabric as a Sensor (FaaS) pillow covering to collect EEG information and help improve restorative sleep. Sleep difficulty and disturbances are leading indicators of potential mental health concerns, depression, changes to mood and emotion, advanced warning for pending disease onset, and neurological and cognitive decay. Through the company’s first application of a “neurosensing” pillow covering, Nuream delivers the ability to collect, curate, annotate, and protect individual neurodata for critical sleep trending, analysis and decision support tools to consumers, then the entire healthcare value chain in follow-on markets.

NCBiotech’s Johnson has been the organization’s Wilmington-based leader since 2005 -- about half of NCBiotech’s 40-year existence.

“At the outset, our region’s involvement in the life sciences was predominantly focused on marine biotech because of UNCW’s research strengths in that sector and on contract research, thanks to UNCW’s clinical research degree offerings and the significant cluster of global contract research companies headquartered or represented here,” said Johnson.

“The excitement of life sciences economic development hinges on its constant evolution and, when done successfully, its embrace of new ideas and technologies that become manifest in our medicine cabinets, farmers’ fields, energy generation, marine life, and yes, even our bedrooms, as evidenced by Nuream’s visionary technology platform.” 

Western Region:

DwellSafe, a physician-founded, technology-enabled company with a mission to help older adults remain comfortable, independent, and free from injuries that often result in hospital visits or relocation to nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“The 2024 western region challenge had three passionate startups working hard to develop technologies that will improve public well-being,” said Jonathan Snover, Ph.D., executive director of the Western Office.

“All three did an excellent job presenting their businesses and we look forward to providing continued support and following their growth. This was another successful program thanks to partners Hatch, who provided the mentor teams, and Hatch Coworking, who hosted the events and is offering three months of free coworking space to the winner.”

Jim Shamp, NCBiotech Writer
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