After graduate students spend a long day in the lab, it's natural -- and useful -- for them to daydream about how they would run the place if they had the opportunity. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC), students are being encouraged to think like they're in charge -- and then to take charge. Some of these enterprising students are making the transition from trainee to entrepreneur as they complete their doctoral degree.
At UNC, this detour from the usual grad student-to-postdoc route is not only tolerated but also encouraged. Over the past couple of years, UNC has begun a campaign to get students thinking broadly about how to apply scholarship to solving real-world problems and given them some tools.
At the core of the campaign is a belief that translating science into practical technologies means not only finding applications for scientific breakthroughs but also finding ways to turn them into viable business strategies. UNC has brought in venture capitalists, patent lawyers, biomedical entrepreneurs, and others from nearby Research Triangle Park to help faculty and students turn their ideas into commercial enterprises. Local patent attorneys and venture capitalists also helped UNC develop an express license process to minimize the financial burden on start-up companies based on university-owned technology. In the 18 months since it created the express license, the university has issued 11 licenses, nine of which went to biomedical science companies.
One of those licenses went to Michael Hackett, a UNC doctoral student who got an idea 2 years ago for a potential commercial drug: to trick tumors into absorbing chemotherapy drugs by designing a molecular Trojan horse. Today, he manages the research program of his start-up company, NovoLipid Inc.
Hackett's journey into entrepreneurship started well before he got his business idea. Knowing, upon starting his graduate studies, that he wanted to solve a real-world problem, Hackett chose his adviser, molecular pharmaceutics researcher Moo Cho, because Cho encouraged his students to pursue their own ideas instead of adding incrementally to an established research program. "In synthetic chemistry, you can get caught up in going through the steps," Hackett says. "It kind of detaches you from the real value of it, which is that potentially this could be used to help somebody."
Cho also proved receptive to the idea of entrepreneurship. When 2 years ago Hackett discovered a new way of using a lipid to link drugs to the soluble protein albumin, and that the combination showed promise in improving the bioavailability of the chemotherapy agent paclitaxel, he and his adviser thought they had an invention that laid the foundation for a company. But they soon realized that neither of them knew how to start a business.
Hackett's first step was to immerse himself in an intensive UNC program called Launching the Venture, which leads potential entrepreneurs through the steps necessary to starting a business and securing funding. Through the program he met Deepak Gopalakrishna, then a genetics graduate student and now his partner at NovoLipid, and Greg Mossinghoff, an experienced biomedical entrepreneur who is now the company's CEO.
The team put together a business plan, and in 2010 won a universitywide new-business competition with a $15,000 cash prize. That recognition led to a collaborative grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a state-funded agency that supports biotechnology development, and a matching grant from Carolina KickStart, which supports faculty members and students who want to commercialize their research. The funding will allow Hackett to spend the next year or two generating proof-of-concept data to attract pharmaceutical companies as partners.
"The fact that we could go through all these steps and say, 'Yeah, we started a company here,' the idea of it hasn't even really sunk in yet. It's kind of unbelievable," Hackett says. He knows he's taking a risk, but being able to call the shots in his lab and pursue something he believes in makes the risk worthwhile, he says.
Being open to the idea of entrepreneurship and meeting people who are translating research into businesses can be especially useful for students, says Justin Brown, a visiting scholar in the KickStart program and founder of the Carolina Student Biotechnology Network. Students often overlook the importance of networking in the nose-to-the-grindstone culture of graduate school. "They fail to grasp how important networking is, even if it's just with peers," he says.
Starting in April, Brown and KickStart Assistant Director Andrew Kant have organized a volunteer-led program called ideaCRUNCH that schedules informal monthly meetings during which graduate and professional students interested in entrepreneurship can learn about research commercialization and network with like-minded people.
Graduate student and entrepreneur Jon Edwards -- who completed a certificate in 2009 in entrepreneurship with an emphasis in the life sciences at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School -- now acts as a student mentor for ideaCRUNCH. The typical graduate student, Edwards says, has little understanding of seed funding or venture capital. "You hear these terms, but you really don't know how they work," he says.
Having already gone through the process of setting up a hypothetical company through his coursework, Edwards got an early chance to apply that inside knowledge when Andrew Hemmert, a graduate student working with Edwards in the lab of chemistry department chair Matthew Redinbo, developed an idea for a novel biosensor technology designed to identify biowarfare nerve agents and pesticides in field conditions. Hemmert wanted to develop the idea into a company, and Edwards was happy to join in. The group filed a patent in December 2009 and simultaneously developed a business plan for what later became Identizyme Defense Technologies.
The two students spent the subsequent year participating in the Launching the Venture course. They received $50,000 in phase I Small Business Innovation Research funding from the federal government, along with matching state funds that allowed Edwards -- Hemmert moved on -- to conduct early product research during his doctoral studies.
Edwards says that one of the challenges for would-be entrepreneurs is that it's often necessary to put in long hours in the lab doing the unglamorous but necessary paperwork to keep the business running. But "you can't sacrifice scientific rigor," he says. "You need to make sure that you are in the lab and you are getting your work done."
Edwards also benefited from a thesis adviser who knew from the outset that Edwards was entrepreneurially disposed.
"You have to be open," Edwards says. "I had a conversation with Matt [Redinbo] about my future career and ... why I thought these [business] experiences would be helpful." The two came to an understanding: As long as Edwards kept his research moving forward, he could pursue the business coursework on the side. Edwards is now a few months away from completing his doctorate and has been focusing on publishing the two papers needed to graduate. For now, the company is on hold as it seeks additional funding or a larger entity to buy its technology.
Despite leaning toward a career in the business end of biotechnology, Edwards says he still loves science and plans to complete an academic postdoc. "One thing I've learned from this process is that experience is invaluable," he says. "I'm going to try to transition to something that will allow me to broaden my skills."
For graduate students who are interested in applying their research to the commercial sector or moving into the business side of technology, Edwards recommends turning to people in the business school or connecting with a local entrepreneurship networking group. "With the economy the way it is today, you need some of these other skills because not everybody is going to be a professor," Edwards says. "It might be good to have some of these other experiences or skill sets that could help you do something else outside academia."
Top Image: Kelly B.  on Flickr.
Karyn Hede is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.