Editor’s note: Suzanne Altobello, Ph.D. is a Marketing and Entrepreneurship professor at UNC Pembroke and UNC Wilmington who moved to North Carolina in 2014, after a 14 year academic career at Southern Illinois University. She has always had a hand in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, from Carbondale, IL to St. Louis Missouri, and now in the Wilmington area. She partners local start-up companies with university students for experiential marketing projects and has been an angel investor herself.

WILMINGTON, N.C. – I had an exciting adult field trip in my own town, within my own university, as I explored the world of biotechnology and life science business opportunities in Wilmington.

To start the journey [on May 19], I joined Pharmacologist and Forbes writer, Dr. David J. Kroll for lunch at the invitation of fellow University of Florida graduate and Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) founder, Jim Roberts. After a great lunch at a highly rated foodie local deli, Dr. Daniel Baden, Director of Biotechnology at UNCW’s CREST Research Park gave me and David a tour of the facilities, located approximately 8 miles from the main UNCW campus, for over two hours.

Inside MARBIONC

I was impressed by the broad business potential of the life science industry that is happening right on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway!

Dr. Baden gave us a history of the buildings, which included the backstory of the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s $15 million grant to UNCW for the Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONC) program in 2009. The 69,000-square-foot research facility contains labs, offices, and meeting rooms, with a mission to unite university researchers, private research firms, and government agencies.

Tenants of the facility can utilize core resources, such as a DNA sequencing lab, state-of-the-art microscopes and mass spectrometers, to name just a few. Dr. Baden was truly visionary in designing the facility to consider what biotechnology business would look like in the future and to complement the other buildings in the park, such as the academic offices of the Center for Marine Science and the Shellfish Research Hatchery. Dr. Baden emphasizes a “transcultural” approach to science, where biologists, chemists, geochemists, and other scientists work in the same facility, advancing scientific discoveries across the biotechnology space.

There are many, yet-to-be-told stories about things that are happening within the walls of the four buildings that comprise the research park; it seemed like every door Dr. Baden opened had a tale that deserved to be told and marketed.

The NEW event

Building on that need to connect academics with business opportunities, David and I attended the Network for Entrepreneurs (NEW) event, discussing angel investing, venture capital, and grant writing for life science businesses. The event was organized by Jim Roberts, moderated by David Kroll, and held at Ironclad Brewery in downtown Wilmington. Ironclad Brewery is an entrepreneurial story itself, with engineer-turned-venture investor-and-brewery-CEO Ted Coughlin renovating a historic building in 2014 and becoming a strong supporter of Wilmington’s entrepreneur and business community in a large, stylish facility.

This was my fifth NEW event and each one is larger than the previous. Over 170 people reserved tickets, demonstrating a clear interest in discussing the intersection of life sciences and biotechnology with business in this town.

The event started with pitches by three Wilmington-based startups operating at this intersection. First, Dr. Elizabeth Baker presented the Tick Rover, a self-described “Roomba for Ticks,” which is robotic device designed by military veterans that kills ticks on the ground and prevents Lyme disease, the third largest disease concern for the VA. Next, Debbie Brown presented multiple innovations by Surgilum which all help surgeons “see” better during eye operations. Surgilum has also presented at the CED Life Sciences Conference.

Finally, Ed Thear presented Neatcap, a simple and elegant solution for neonates in intensive care units to reduce noxious, ambient noise, stabilize medical tubes around an infant patient’s head, and contribute to better sleeping and subsequent faster healing of a sick newborn.

Grant availability

Following the pitches, Karen LeVert from Southeast TechInventures, gave the crowd opening remarks on Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants available from the government for up to $150,000 for Phase 1 proof-of-concept grants and up to $1,000,000 for Phase 2 business planning. These grants are non-dilutive, do not require repayment, and allow the innovator to retain all intellectual property rights…basically “free” money, but are focused on truly innovative product ideas. She emphasized how these grants are particularly favorable to university partnerships.

Given my earlier trip to the UNCW CREST Research Park, I can see the many opportunities to obtain SBIR funding in Wilmington. In fact, Jim gave a frightening statistic: “Wilmington is the eighth largest city in NC, but 24th in pursuing SBIR grants in North Carolina,” quoting the Innovation Index by NC Board of Science and Technology.

Clearly, there is so much potential to support, build, and grow biotechnology startups in Wilmington, using federal money to energize already-existing innovation hidden in the labs of academics.

“Break the silos”

David Kroll then moderated a question and answer session with LeVert, Preston Linn, and Merrette Moore, all from the Raleigh-Durham area. Preston Linn is a Life Science angel investor, as well as the Industry Academic Coordinator for Biomedical Engineering, a joint program between UNC and NC State. Preston advised the crowd to “break the silos” that are often present among and between universities and businesses. Merrette Moore is a Board member of the Rex Health Ventures Board and an executive with Lookout Capital. He looks to partner with innovators developing healthcare solutions within hospital settings. Merrette emphasized the importance of the team to private equity firms, stating “I don’t invest in companies, I invest in people.”

The crowd was lively, asking questions about how to “find” university partners (few people “know” what is happening in the academic campus.), to what SBIR program managers look for in grant proposals (answer: truly innovative solutions with market potential), to what venture investors are looking for in life science businesses (answer: people on the team who are able to make things happen). The crowd networked for well over an hour after the Q&A session ended. The moderator and speakers were generous in offering their time and talents to attendees.

For me, the day was an exciting foray into biotech and life sciences in this beach town. I was given the chance to learn from smart scientists, journalists, and investors. Likewise, business-minded entrepreneurs and NEW members offer commercialization and marketing knowledge to scientists: a win-win for both groups. Thanks Jim and NEW for a great adult field trip. These events continue to inspire me.