​“If you’re thinking about starting a company, just go out and do it. There’s nothing like it. It’s a great experience.”

That’s bottom-line advice offered by Giles Shih to more than 100 people gathered in a ballroom at the Raleigh Convention Center during a pre-conference panel discussion to kick off the 2016 CED Life Science Conference.

Shih is co-founder and CEO of BioResource International (BRI), a North Carolina State University spinout that makes enzyme food additives for growth enhancement in swine and poultry.

Shih lauded the North Carolina Biotechnology Center as an important organization for helping to launch BRI, and as a valuable resource for other entrepreneurs considering a new life science company start-up within the state.

Shih was joined on the panel by leaders of three other NCSU spinouts:

  • Miles Wright, CEO of Xanofi, a Raleigh company making nanofiber structures for applications such as regenerative medicine;
  • David Clark, president and CEO of Aseptia, a food technology company that develops technology to keep food from spoiling; and
  • Malcolm Thomas, chief operating officer of Agile Sciences, a Raleigh company developing anti-biofilm technology that may redefine antibiotics and help reduce the problem of antibiotic resistance in the growing battle against bacterial infections.

Shift needed from academic lab to commercial marketplace

The panel, moderated by Kelly Sexton, director of NCSU’s Office of Technology Transfer, talked about the fits and starts their companies went through, and the kinds of decisions required for successful startups. They agreed that one of the major challenges for university spinouts is the need to move out of an academic lab mindset supported by grants, and into a capital- and market-driven business mode.

That also demands focus on the most lucrative and accessible markets as early as possible. That’s especially difficult for many inventors, because a given technology might have many possible applications. Without revenue, however, none of those applications might ever see the light of day.

“Companies can be a victim of their own technology,” said Thomas. Agile was originally founded on anti-biofilm possibilities, “but a startup has to focus.” So Agile re-focused on antibiotic resistance, and licensed an agricultural application for its technology to Cipro, for use against a biofilm attacking citrus trees called citrus canker. Copper compounds had been used to treat it, but growers found they needed to use more every year to control the infections, so they needed an alternative.

Success can be a spoiler

Clark said one of his key challenges when he joined Aseptia less than two years ago was to rein in excessive growth and spending. The company had signed lucrative contracts with major food companies such as Dole Foods and Dannon, and used that money to overbuild its production capacity at its Montgomery County campus, he said.

Asked what North Carolina could do better, to encourage more life science startups, the panelists agreed that the state is a world leader in innovative university research, but more funding support and a higher level of risk-taking would be useful.

“North Carolina is great incubator,” said Thomas. “. I used to live in California, and I can tell you North Carolina is great for innovation. We have excellent resources such as the Biotech Center and CED, but then suddenly there’s a disconnect. The Qualified Business venture program went away, for example. And the state of venture and angel capital is really bad in this state, despite the fact that there’s great innovation here.”

Sexton noted that the three major Triangle universities are launching major investment programs to help confront that relative lack of funding

Duke University has established an angel network for alumni investors, UNC has set up the Carolina Angel Network and NCSU hopes to launch the Wolfpack Investor Network later in 2016. And the three are expected to also form a collaborative pact, she noted.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center