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Duke University’s plan to turn alumni into startup investors

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
The annual summit for research institution gap fund and accelerator programs, including proof of concept programs, startup accelerators, and university venture funds

The Story

W hen entrepreneur Damien Hoffman left Duke University in 1999, it was a rude awakening. The Dot Com Bubble was bursting “so I went through that rodeo.”

Today, he’s the founder of The Cheat Sheet, a media company with more than 15 million monthly users. And he’s ready to pay that success forward.

On Wednesday, Duke University announced a vehicle that could help him do just that: the Duke Angel Network – a Blue Devil alumni network – and a new innovation fund aimed at turning Duke research into startups and jobs.

The new philanthropic Duke Innovation Fund kicked off with an initial $2 million investment from Duke. It will invest alongside the angel network to expand the funds available to companies.

Hoffman says it’s about time, pointing to similar programs at other schools, particularly the one at Stanford University. “Duke has the same quality of talent. … Duke has a great engineering school.”

The university boasts an impressive alumni catalogue, with names like Cisco CEO John Chambers, Apple CEO Tim Cook, former Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson.

But it does lack two things that Stanford gets from its proximity to Silicon Valley: money and advisory experience.

“A lot of Duke students have a lot of good ideas,” Hoffman says. “They’re smart enough to use those great ideas. But without the resume lines that they interned at a Pinterest or an AirBnb … it’s a lot harder for a financier to throw money at.”

But that’s starting to change as entrepreneurship gains steam in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Recent exits such as those of Appia, Digitalsmiths and Automated Insights are brining new investor attention to the Triangle. And the Duke Angel Network could be forming just in time to take advantage of the upswing.

The initiative isn’t just about investment capital. It’s also about that mentoring, says Eric Toone, vice provost and director of Duke’s campus-wide Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, which will oversee the initiative. He says it “will catalyze Duke’s vibrant entrepreneurial community and support innovation throughout our global family.”

Duke will soon begin to seek angel investors for its network, drawing on the participation and expertise of Duke alumni, more than 700 of which are currently registered on entrepreneurial investment website AngelList.

Toone predicts the network will attract 150 angel investors within the first three years.

“We’ve heard from people across this community that one of the biggest barriers is a lack of investment capital,” says Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University. “This new network is addressing that challenge directly by drawing on one of Duke’s greatest resources, namely its alumni and other supporters.”

Rich alumni investing in entrepreneurs at their alma maters seems to be in vogue right now. For example, longtime Triangle pharma executive Fred Eshelman donated $100 million to the UNC-Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy– which bares his name from previous donations – to create an Institute for Innovation.

As for Hoffman, he’s already prepping to write a check.

via Duke University’s plan to turn alumni into startup investors.

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