October 18-20 | Tucson, AZ

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Three novel UNC-Chapel Hill startups named to the latest class of KickStart Commercialization Award winners

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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

When UNC-Chapel Hill spinout company G1 Therapeutics made its NASDAQ debut in the spring of 2017, most observers in the medical, life sciences and investment community were solely focused on the big number: an $108.6 million initial public offering of the company’s stock. Not Don Rose. As the director of KickStart Venture Services at UNC-Chapel Hill, Rose also reflected on a small figure: the number one. That’s because G1 Therapeutics, a clinical oncology startup that is developing novel therapeutics to shield cancer patients against chemotherapy’s toxic effects, was the first company to receive a Commercialization Award from Rose’s KickStart team. 

G1 used the awarded funding from KickStart to get off the ground and make early advances in its research and company formation. Its use of the award is a formula for early-stage startup success that paid off for G1 and a total of 60 companies that have now received more than $1.9 million in funding or services from KickStart. These companies went on to raise $22 million in SBIR/STTR grants and $259 million in total funding. And the previous success continues with three new companies that were recently named the latest KickStart Commercialization Award winners: Altis BiosystemsEmpowerRT and Irex Pharma. The most recent round of funding totaled $110,600 across the three companies.

The new KickStart award recipients are working on a variety of promising technologies and therapeutics:

• Altis Biosystems is developing a unique stem cell technology that recreates the human intestinal epithelium for drug testing and microbiome research. Its goal is to make drug discovery faster, cheaper and safer, while reducing the need for animal testing. Altis Biosystems was founded by Kenan Distinguished Professor Nancy Allbritton (UNC Department of Chemistry and Chair of the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University); Research Professor Christopher Sims (UNC Department of Chemistry), Associate Professor Scott Magness (Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering), Associate Professor Scott Bultman (UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics), Research Associate Yuli Wang (UNC Department of Chemistry); and CEO Michael Biron (MBA alumnus of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School).

• EmpowerRT offers clinically-proven, user-friendly software, patient-specific device fabrication, and hands-on training that allows resource-limited clinics in low-and-middle income countries to reduce toxicity during cancer radiation treatments. EmpowerRT’s solution is clinically similar to high-tech, multi-million-dollar equipment, but at 5 to 10 percent of the cost. EmpowerRT was founded by Professor Sha Chang (UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Radiation Oncology).

• Irex Pharma has developed a novel assay and isolated a new target in the pathway regulating mucus production in patients with cystic fibrosis, asthma and other respiratory diseases. Irex Pharma also participated in KickStart’s New Enterprise Opportunity program, which facilitates the development of startup companies. Its co-founders are Emily Hull-Ryde, a principal scientist and group manager for the Center of Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery (UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy), and Associate Professor Carla Ribeiro (UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Cell Biology and Physiology).

“The Commercialization Award program provides vital early-stage funding for startups from UNC-Chapel Hill,” said Rose. “The award enables the companies to build prototypes, obtain preliminary data for government grant applications or launch a beta program. It’s a stepping stone that propels the companies to be more attractive for funding from grants as well as angel and venture capital investors.”

The program will enable the three award recipients to complete high-impact projects that help the companies bring UNC-owned intellectual property to market. The awards are part of a campus-wide effort to transform discoveries made in UNC’s academic laboratories into products and services that can benefit people outside the university setting, while making a human and economic impact across North Carolina and beyond.

The immediacy of impact is something that is important to Sha Chang, a professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Radiation Oncology, who founded social-medical venture EmpowerRT. “EmpowerRT is a new UNC social enterprise startup with the mission to help people in developing countries improve cancer radiation therapy without spending millions of dollars,” says Chang. “The cancer burden in developing countries continues to increase, while the lack of resources is unlikely to change.  There is an urgent unmet need to find feasible solutions to advance cancer radiation therapy in these countries.”

“The Commercialization Award program provides early-stage funding for startups from UNC-Chapel Hill … It’s a stepping stone that propels the companies to be more attractive for funding from grants as well as angel and venture capital investors.”

Chang thinks the KickStart awards will help her team accelerate toward meeting its goals. “We are thrilled to receive the Commercialization Award and consider it to be a strong level of support from Kickstart Venture Services for EmpowerRT,” Chang continues. “The award makes it possible for us to take the first crucial steps in transferring a UNC-developed and clinically-proven, low-cost personalized radiation therapy solution to resource-limited cancer clinics in developing countries. The first steps include carrying out one to two implementation demonstrations in typical developing country settings. Our first test site will be in the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Zambia, where UNC Global Oncology already has a strong presence.”

Source: Innovation Story | Innovate Carolina

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