CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Everyone agrees it’s difficult to get funding for early stage companies — especially in biotech, where it may take several years to realize a payoff.

David Murdock, developer of the billion-dollar-plus N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, realized that if his biopolis is to become a worldwide center in biotechnology, start-up companies would have to be a vital component. So he created a $100 million venture fund for just that purpose.

Fayetteville native Clyde Higgs, the man who will head up that fund, hit the ground running in July and is already hoping to announce the first deal by year’s end — and all this before the fund even has an official name. He is returning to North Carolina from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where he was executive director of Fort Worth Tech, Inc., which assisted young tech companies commercialize their products. He also served on the board of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, a $200-million fund for start-up ventures and has also led the Office of technology Transfer at N.C. A&T University.

As vice president of business development for Castle & Cooke, Murdock’s development arm for the project, Higgs, 35, will not only manage the fund, but also recruit firms to locate on the campus. Last month, the Biomarker Group was announced as the first tenant in the 350,000-square-foot core lab building now under construction.

It is the venture fund that makes the N.C. Research Campus unique, Higgs said. Other centers may also partner with universities and community colleges and have a strong infrastructure in place, but the fund “is the piece that is a game changer.”

Higgs described the fund’s “sweet spot” as life sciences companies in the early stage of Phase I clinical trials, although it will consider pre-clinical-stage firms “with good data.” There will be an emphasis on firms in the medical devices, diagnostic pharmaceutical, biologics and health care IT sectors.

“These companies can feed off each other to create efficiencies in the market,” Higgs noted.

Funded firms will not be required to locate to the campus, but, Higgs noted, “We’d prefer it, and it makes sense — here they’ll have access to the specialized lab equipment we’ll have available in a cost-effective way. They won’t have to buy spectrometers or incubators. Moving here is a value-add.”

At this point, there is no policy on how much money the fund will invest or how many firms will be funded annually. “It depends on the deal flow,” Higgs said,

When it comes to finding tenants for the core lab building — which will feature both office and lab space — Higgs said he would use the same kind of strategy as funding firms. In addition, he said, “We’ll create an intellectual eco-system with ancillary firms, such as informatics and research tool companies, accountants who specialize in serving start-ups and intellectual property attorneys.”

Although not a scientist, Higgs has an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of South Alabama, which included some training in life sciences — and a stint working in a lab. He has a Masters from East Carolina University.

“I understand the fundamentals of what they’re trying to do in the lab and then can take it a step further, helping to translate the work into something meaningful to the patient population,” he said.

Higgs added that his perspective is enriched by his wife, Dr. Vetta Higgs, an oncologist at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. They have one child.

Both were eager to return to the Tar Heel State. “I wanted to see how things were done outside the state, but I always wanted to come back,” Higgs said. “I’m glad to be back in Carolina. My wife considers it her home state, too.”

He stressed that the N.C. Research Campus is a “North Carolina project,” and that Castle & Cooke will be working with existing organizations across the state to tell its story.

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