stood in front of a crowd of thousands at Kenan Memorial Stadium and told the story of his entrepreneurial journey as the founding CEO of Hulu and now subscription video service
The class of 2015 listened intently as the commencement speaker shared tales of living out of his car and struggling to make it through each day as friends and family questioned his decisions.
Kilar, who earned his undergraduate degree at UNC before attending Harvard Business School and starting Hulu, was the perfect speaker for a university that has dedicated tremendous resources to entrepreneurship and innovation over the last several years.
The 2014-15 academic year was no different. Here are some highlights from the innovation and entrepreneurship community at Carolina this past year.
Carolina Research Venture Fund
The purpose of the fund is to provide much needed capital to ventures that have high potential but are too early-stage for most venture capitalists to consider funding. UNC is a top 10 research university and churns out useful research every year that too often is consigned to a shelf. Administrators hope this fund will bridge the gap and help university faculty turn their research into commercially-viable products.
“They (the Board of Trustees) have really proven their commitment to translating ideas into impact for society," said Judith Cone, UNC’s special assistant to the Chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship, when she announced the fund. "This fund is one piece of that multi-pronged commitment.”
In December, alumnus Fred Eshelman donated $100 million to create the Eshelman Institute for Innovation at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. My finger did not get stuck on the 0 key. Eshelman is giving nine figures of his own personal wealth to a school that already bears his name.
The donation is the largest ever for a pharmacy school in the United States and the largest in the history of the university. The gift will provide extra research funds for faculty, thereby allowing UNC to be on the cutting edge of innovation and research in pharmaceuticals.
Similar to her comments on the Carolina Research Venture Fund, Cone said it’s important for researchers to have money with which to innovate and that the Eshelman gift will provide just that.
A businessman and scientist as savvy as Eshelman isn’t giving away that kind of cash unless he’s confident there will be a payoff. Cone called the gift a “vote of confidence that UNC is becoming a place where innovators thrive.”
The Carolina Challenge
The Challenge is a four month long entrepreneurship pitch competition that begins with the annual kick-off event called Pitch Party in October and ends with the finals in March. This year, tens of thousands in prize money was awarded to undergraduates, grad students, faculty, staff and alumni who competed in three separate tracks (for-profit, social/not-for-profit, and alumni/staff/grad/faculty).
November’s pitch party was a veritable free-for-all-pitch marathon in Kenan Stadium’s Blue Zone. Hundreds of teams were stationed around the room as dozens of judges rotated to hear two-minute pitches from as many ventures as possible. Judges had monopoly money that they were free to “invest” in the startups they most liked. At the end of this organized chaos, organizers tallied each team’s proceeds and developed a top 10 list. The remaining ventures each had a chance to pitch on stage in front of the entire crowd, after which the judges used cell phones to vote for the winners.
At the end of this three-hour process involving hundreds of hopeful entrepreneurs and countless pitches, Native Beverage Company rose to the top and collected a check for $1,000. Native Beverage produces a dairy-alternative milk product made from North Carolina pecans. Founder Rachel Atkinson, an undergraduate at Carolina, is currently working on a go-to-market strategy as she finishes up her tenure at CUBE—UNC’s hub for social innovation.
The real Carolina Challenge fun started in February with the opening Elevator Pitch round at 1789 Venture Lab. Dozens of teams packed into the 3,000-square-foot second floor building on Franklin with pitch stations placed at four corners of the open room. At the end of the night, the number of competing teams was cut in half.
The semi-finals at Kenan-Flagler Business School were a less chaotic scene, but no less intense. Instead of a crowded room, competitors pitched in small auditorium style classrooms in which most of the judges and audience members sat above them.
While 22 teams were awarded cash prizes, only the top three teams in each track moved on to pitch at the finals at Chapel Hill’s historic Carolina Inn on March 26. The excitement of the evening was enhanced with anticipation of a Carolina basketball sweet 16 matchup with Wisconsin that would follow later that night.
Measuring Economic Impact
In a public university system where state funding is tight and donors (like Eshelman) prefer knowing over hoping their money is going to be used productively, it’s important to measure success. This past year, Cone and her team set out to collect that data and the results were impressive.
The 150 active UNC-born startups employ 38,000 people in North Carolina and generate $7 billion in annual revenue. Those startups fall into three categories: companies for which the university owns the intellectual property, companies that received direct support from the university from programs like the business school, the minor in entrepreneurship, 1789 Venture Lab and Launch Chapel Hill, and companies founded by UNC graduates that did not necessarily receive direct support. 22 of those companies launched in 2013, the last year for which data was reported. Here's a breakdown of technology transfer activity for the 2013-2014 and four subsequent school years.
Cone says it’s important that the university measures that success and is able to tell a story.
“It’s been a great initiative to know who our startups are, know how to categorize them and what their contributions are to the economy and to innovation in general," she said.
It’s summer time in Chapel Hill now. Most of the students are gone and Franklin Street and campus are sleepy and quiet during the sultry summer days. Behind the scenes, however, there are students, faculty and administrators in the entrepreneurship community working hard to ensure the ’15-’16 academic year is even better than the last.