Two UNC entrepreneurs win Carolina Kickstart fellowships

Carolina KickStart has awarded recent graduates Ryan Gessner and Nicholas Dobes with Innovation Fellowships that will enable them to work full-time for a UNC spin-out company in need of technical and scientific expertise.

The fellowships are part of a larger effort to translate discoveries made in UNC’s academic laboratories into applications that can benefit people outside the university setting.

“There is a lot of innovation that occurs at a university,” said Dobes. “You have graduate students who put countless hours into these technologies that could be so incredibly helpful for so many people. Without the possibility of commercializing these technologies, they are just basic research tools that only a few people can use.”

As recipients of the innovation fellowships, Dobes and Gessner will receive stipends of up to $50,000 annually, as well as mentorship and support services from Carolina KickStart that include access to market research databases, free Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) consultations, and auditing of business classes.

“The Innovation Fellowship Program is intended to tap student potential in forming university startups and retain highly trained talent to North Carolina,” said Carolina KickStart Director Don Rose. “Because the fellows are typically from the lab where the startup originated, the graduate student can provide important technical expertise in developing the product. It also provides the recently graduated PhDs with business training and experience in how science is commercialized.”

Gessner and Paul Dayton, professor of pharmacy and associate chair of the UNC-NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, came up with idea for SonoVol while Gessner was finishing up his doctoral degree in Dayton’s lab. The spin-out company is developing a preclinical imaging technology that can be applied to the animal models researchers use to evaluate the efficacy and toxicity of new drugs before they enter clinical trials.

With fellowship support, Gessner can now devote time to meeting with and getting feedback from dozens of potential customers on the features that need to be included in the technology to ensure a product-market fit and strong sales revenue once it hits the shelves.

Dobes also plans to use his fellowship to get input from early adopters of his company’s product, CellRaftTM. This biomedical device came from the laboratory of Dobes’ mentor and Cell Microsystems company founder Nancy Allbritton, distinguished professor of chemistry and chair of the UNC-NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering.

The CellRaftTM technology can be used to isolate single cells for use in research, with potential applications for work with stem cells, clinical pathology samples, and cancer diagnostics.

Both Dobes and Gessner look forward to taking advantage of the resources made available to them as innovation fellows, and say they are excited to be part of a growing community of entrepreneurs at UNC.

“UNC is becoming a great place for small companies,” said Gessner. “For hundreds of years, universities were exclusively for the pursuit of academic endeavors. It was very rare that companies would not only emerge from, but also operate within the walls of the ivory tower. UNC is definitely ahead of the curve in that respect. The people at Carolina KickStart know about business and about starting companies, so being formally plugged into that network of entrepreneurs and business people will be great for the growth of our company.”

Since its inception five years ago, Carolina KickStart has been active in developing and launching startup companies based on UNC intellectual property. It is part of the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences (NC TraCS) Institute, home of UNC’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program. The CTSA program is led by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Published June 16, 2014.