CHAPEL HILL – On any given day, you will find Judy Prasad, PhD, on a mission: connecting UNC-Chapel Hill startups to resources and networks, advising them on funding opportunities, or offering mentorship and support as they build their ventures.
As the new assistant director of KickStart Venture Services, Prasad supports the launch and growth of Carolina’s intellectual property-based startups, including companies within the KickStart Accelerator, the first dedicated wet lab space for early-stage life science companies at the University and in Chapel Hill. A department within Innovate Carolina, the University’s central team for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development, KickStart supports research-based startup formation and growth by providing entrepreneurial education, early-stage funding and on-campus accelerator space.
Prasad came to UNC-Chapel Hill and KickStart in 2020, using her experience with government, academic and industry-based stakeholders to create commercialization and research partnerships that best position startups for growth and success. Innovate Carolina spoke with Prasad about her new role and how she impacts startups and ventures in the innovation and entrepreneurial community, not only on campus but throughout the wider Research Triangle Park region and beyond.
- What most excites you about your role as assistant director of KickStart?
What’s most exciting is that I’m able to engage with very passionate and enthusiastic entrepreneurial staff, faculty and students here at UNC-Chapel Hill. I have the opportunity to either help train them, start their business or figure out what the best path forward is for their technology. To me, that’s the most rewarding part of the job.
- How does KickStart help startup ventures flourish and grow?
What we do, and what differentiates us from other university venture support groups, is that we offer tailored programs that can support faculty, staff or students when they’re ready to launch a venture or explore entrepreneurship. We also have funding programs that supplement these educational opportunities, ensuring founders are well positioned to reach company milestones.
- Why are partnerships valuable to KickStart’s work?
The partnerships we have developed, especially locally, are vital to helping startups both scale and launch from the University. There’s often this misconception that since scientists are working siloed in the lab, that’s how they should operate to build a company. But by engaging and turning to partners like the North Carolina Small Business Technology Development Center and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, KickStart makes a number of valuable introductions for startup companies. These companies are then able to get advice for growing their businesses and identifying the right path to market. There are a lot of new venture support groups out there, but they often don’t have the right relationships for a startup to tap into, and I think that sets KickStart apart.
- How does KickStart fuel innovation?
The Research Triangle Park area has this critical mass of scientists, entrepreneurs and innovation, but we may be lacking when it comes to raising equity capital and sourcing large investments. Essentially, bringing money into the Triangle is something that requires an extensive network. One of the really great things about KickStart is that we work to foster relationships with other universities in the Triangle, including Duke and NC State, because we can leverage our collective investor relationships to support our companies in their fundraising.
One of the ways we have been doing this is through our annual Venture Day, where we partner with the NC Biotech Center and Duke to bring investors from across the country to see our institutions’ selected therapeutics companies pitch. These startups get to connect with investors from beyond the Triangle, and the investors learn what our region’s companies have to offer. That’s the kind of collaboration you won’t see in other academic ecosystems, which I believe is a unique strength of Research Triangle Park. By partnering with others, we’re able to get our startups to a critical mass for visibility and financing. This benefits the entire entrepreneurial community, not just us.
Another new endeavor that we’re working on with Duke and NC State identifies and supports entrepreneurial trainees within the region. These are people who want to work with and learn from startups, and are seeking professional development beyond their graduate training. We’re collaborating to create a series of events that will bring together these trainees, not only to learn from one another, but to also enable networking with startup leaders and mentors within the Triangle. We envision this support will encourage trainees to stay and work locally within the Triangle post-graduation, strengthening North Carolina’s economic development.
When we meet with scientists who are looking for ways to get their ideas to market, we immediately encourage them to figure out who their target customer is. Being devoted and passionate about your science is the default for inventors, but it is equally important to know whether people will want and purchase what you’re developing. KickStart can help inventors test that hypothesis through the NSF I-Corps program. I-Corps essentially takes an inventor out of their lab and places them into the real world to find out who would benefit from their technology. The program helps researchers learn the basics of primary market research by teaching them how to ask and determine what are their customer’s pain points, and do customers priorities overlay with the product or service capabilities they are developing? We try to get I-Corps participants to realize is it’s not about whether they can sell their technology, it’s about whether or not that technology is needed and valuable to people.
- How do you see Carolina bringing faculty, students and entrepreneurs together to solve problems?
One program we created that brings together members of the Carolina community is the Venture Catalyst Program. This program pairs startups or inventors with entrepreneurial trainees (“Venture Catalyst Fellows”) for six months of dedicated business development support. We support both these groups by bringing them together at the start of the program and matching them based on mutual interests as well as business needs. The Fellows are asked to commit at least five hours each week to supporting a specific scope of work, which allows them to bolster their own professional training as well.
The startups benefit from the business support that the Fellows provide, and the Fellows get direct experience translating scientific, technological, and social ideas into the market. Over two years, we saw a mutual benefit to participants who were UNC founders – either aspiring or current – and entrepreneurial trainees. This was an invaluable opportunity for graduate students and postdocs who were interested in entrepreneurship but wouldn’t necessarily have the bandwidth or even the experience to go join a startup.
- What are the biggest short- and long-term opportunities for KickStart to make an impact?
Within the next year or two, I see our programs and services providing three major outcomes. The first is that we’re able to educate founders through our training and programming. The second is we provide visibility for these founders, particularly through introductions to stakeholders outside the University. And finally, we can help these companies fundraise through our grant-writing support and Commercialization Grant-Award program.
For long-term opportunities, one of the things I’m most passionate about as assistant director is creating strategic partnerships with service providers that can help startups once they’re ready to leave the university. Specifically, I aim to make strong connections with CROs (contract research organizations) that can work with our portfolio companies that have secured a Phase 1 federal STTR grant and are ready to raise larger sums of money. In order to reach a critical development milestone, these companies need to essentially partner and outsource later stage R&D beyond what they can do within the KickStart Accelerator.
When a company is ready to leave the university, we can make introductions to a targeted list of CROs that would serve as the right partner for their research. Our goal is to create startup packages with CROs that these companies can benefit from. We want our startups to be able to launch from the university successfully and without having to spend exorbitant amounts of money to reach critical development milestones.
I’d also like to grow our investor network by bringing external stakeholders into to the Triangle, facilitating startup investment beyond the local venture capitalists in the region who are already very supportive of our companies. To be able to get to a point where they can be acquired or reach an IPO, startups will need to raise significant investment. By working with partners like the NC Biotech Center, Duke and other universities in the area, we can collectively increase our visibility and investor network and therefore bring greater capital into the region.
- How can startups access KickStart’s services?
The best way to access our services is to meet with our director, Mireya McKee, and me so we can get to know more about your entrepreneurial goals, and understand how KickStart can best support you. We have regular calls for funding opportunities that are distributed to the startups we support and are also marketed through Innovate Carolina (see our most recent cycle of the KickStart Commercialization Grant Awards, which provides up to $50,000 in proof of concept funding for UNC IP-based companies). We can add you to our weekly startup listserv where we market many different funding, networking and educational opportunities for companies, as well as content that’s helpful for someone who’s thinking about creating a startup.
- What advice would you offer to a startup looking to grow or take a next step?
I’d first say to ask for help, especially from someone outside your inner circle of advisors and peers. It’s very comfortable to bounce ideas off people you are familiar with that will not push you. However, you need honest, direct and sometimes dissenting feedback to create a successful company, and that’s something I would encourage any scientist to think about before they even incorporate. This ties naturally into the value of our KickStart Advisory Group program. The advisory group is a select number of entrepreneurs and investors within the Triangle and beyond who have a great deal of commercialization experience. The advisory group meets bimonthly and offers our startups direct feedback around their asks, whether that’s about fundraising, prototyping or building a team. We encourage all startups to participate in at least one of these meetings to learn from the group and get honest feedback about their company.
The second piece of advice I would give is to understand your technology’s value proposition, and be able to communicate that clearly and succinctly without any kind of technical jargon. And then, finally, aim to build the right team around your company. A company’s management is even more vital than the technology, because so often investors assess risk by looking at the team to judge whether they can bring that technology to market. Building the team is too often far down on the list of priorities of a startup founder, but I would encourage people to think of it first and foremost.