Some important resources that can make a difference for a startup include funding, mentoring and networking. All of these components are part of the NC BIONEER Venture Challenge, a competition for biotech-based startups that was launched in 2020 by the N.C. Biotechnology Center Southeastern Office, in partnership with UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Following this local launch, N.C. Biotechnology Center announced this month the challenge would be available statewide with the program carried out by regional offices and culminating in a state-level challenge.
“The inaugural challenge in 2020 was an awesome experience and a whirlwind of ideas and activity,” said Randall Johnson, executive director of the N.C. Biotechnology Center Southeastern Office. “I had wanted to do this type of early-stage venture challenge for some time; when I found funding to roll out the challenge, I started the planning, pulling partners on board and executing the challenge within a very tight timeframe.”
The first round of the BIONEER Venture Challenge began taking applications in February 2020, and Johnson said the local community responded favorably and quickly.
The challenge, which had to pivot to virtual events during the pandemic, served as a pilot for the program, which was always intended to expand.
“The need for this type of initiative and support exists in every region of our state, and I designed the inaugural NC BIONEER in 2020 as a pilot with a vision toward the statewide expansion,” Johnson said.
For the challenge, participants go through an application process, two months of an assistance period that includes networking, mentoring and pitch coaching, a regional pitch and this year, a statewide pitch for regional winners.
The perks of participating and winning include monetary awards totaling $40,000 for each region, made up of $20,000 for the top award and $10,000 each for second and third; incubator tenancy and/or support partnerships with accelerators and support providers and promotion with a community of biotech innovators, entrepreneurs and ventures.
“NC BIONEER is designed to address several of the primary issues facing early-stage biotech companies,” Johnson said. “The networking opportunities and intense mentoring component of NC BIONEER, as well as the accessibility to our NC Biotech Center Life Science Intelligence team for market/industry research, are critical components of the initiative and most valued by the venture participants.”
This rings true for winners of the 2020 BIONEER Challenge, Isosceles Pharmaceuticals.
“The BIONEER was unique in that it offered a lot of resources for people who were either just starting a business or thinking about starting a biotech company,” said Brett Lanier, president of Isosceles. “You really pressure-test your assumptions and your pitch presentation in front of experts in the field.”
Isosceles is a Wilmington-based company developing nonopioid products to treat acute pain.
Lanier said the company has had several successes since winning the challenge. This includes adding members who are bringing years of experience in pharmaceuticals. Bill Humphries, former president of Ortho Dermatologics, joined as CEO. Herb Neuman, with a background in pain treatment, is chief medical officer. Others include Tim Maness as fractional chief financial officer, Tom Harrison as a strategic adviser and the Wyrick Robbins firm as a legal counsel.
The company has also expanded its intellectual property, and in 2021 it filed a utility application in the United States and internationally through the Patent Cooperation Treaty for its pharmaceutical formulation.
The efforts of biotech startups and their supporters have continued to help develop the life science industry in Southeastern North Carolina.
One area that could need more work to continue to nurture biotech companies is workforce training.
“Talent development and recruitment are ever-growing needs and priorities for the region and state,” Johnson said.
Currently, UNCW, the NC Biotech Center Southeastern Office, industry partners, community colleges and others are vying for a “Build Back Better Regional Challenge” grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
“… if awarded, it would fund a Biomanufacturing Workforce Development and Innovation Center with a facility and programs to train the next generation of biomanufacturing talent for the significant sector growth anticipated in the region,” Johnson said.
Currently, applications for the 2022 round of the BIONEER Challenge are open through Feb. 25 and is open to life science/biotech ventures in each state region, with info at ncbioneer.com