For Budding Entrepreneurs, Award Throws Networking Lifeline

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Dec 21, 2023
Randall Johnson (left) and Brett Lanier (right) present last year's N.C. Biotech Venture Challenge winner (middle) with his award. (Photo courtesy of Randall Johnson)
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center will soon open the application period for its 2024 N.C. Biotech Venture Challenge.

The program began in 2020 with a pilot challenge in Wilmington. Randall Johnson, executive director of N.C. Biotech’s Southeastern office, lives and works in Wilmington and wanted a program that gave biotech entrepreneurs access to non-dilutive grant funding or funding that doesn’t require a return on investment.

“So the idea behind the Venture Challenge was to provide a period of two or three months of intense networking,” Johnson said, “to make sure that they have people they can reach out to for support in a variety of ways, whether it's funding or information on how to run the business.”

He said many science entrepreneurs have the science aspect of the business under control but struggle with presenting the business to those less versed in the technical side of things.

The winner of the inaugural venture capital award, Brett Lanier, president of Isosceles Pharmaceuticals, said he was one of those people — although Johnson disagrees.

“What N.C. (Biotech) helps you do is refine your language and refine your pitch and distill these really complex ideas into pretty straightforward speaking points and manageable chunks of information that, at a high level, anybody can understand,” Lanier said. “I think that was part of our problem.”

“You don't really realize that when you're surrounded by MDs and PhDs, we're all talking this highly detailed language,” he said.

Isosceles is a pharmaceutical company based in Wilmington that develops two products: an intravenous non-opioid pain reliever that is preparing for a Phase One application next fiscal quarter and a micro-needle non-opioid pain relief patch that is currently in research and development, Lanier said.

The program has grown since 2020 and is now in five regions across the state, which include Eastern, Southeastern, Greater Charlotte area, Piedmont Triad and Western. Three teams from each region are chosen for the first round of the challenge, ending in May. The winner of the regional challenge takes home $20,000 and second and third place take home $10,000.

The regional winner in the Southeastern office also wins a one-year tenancy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Once one winner is crowned from each region, all five face off in the statewide venture challenge. The winner of the statewide contest wins $100,000.

Investors, service providers, other entrepreneurs and business community members are teamed up with the pitching entrepreneur to hone their pitching skills leading up to the competition.

"The companies or ventures that will be most likely to be accepted are those that are very early stage and in need of this kind of help,” Johnson said.

Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) founder and owner, Jim Roberts, said his advice for entrepreneurs applying for the challenge is to talk about the business upside of their mission and not only their love for science. He added that inexperienced entrepreneurs can add some prestige to their businesses by hiring experienced board members to guide them through the pitching and funding landscape.

The applications Johnson’s team looks through range from life sciences like Lanier’s Isosceles Pharmaceuticals to agricultural, industrial and marine biotech.

Winning the challenge gave Lanier’s business a “seal of approval,” and led to a friends and family funding round, as well as a $5 million seed funding round. His team is working on their Series A funding round now.

Lanier served as a judge on the evaluation panel in 2022’s venture challenge. He said he doesn’t think his company would be where it is now without the exposure from winning the venture challenge.

“It was eye-opening to see where we went and how far we've gone,” he said.

Although Wilmington has a seat at the state’s biotech table, exemplified through Wilmington-based startup Opiaid’s win of N.C. Tech’s AI + Data Analytics company award this year, the city has seen less funding than more established hubs like Research Triangle Park, Lanier said.

The capital-intensive biotech industry is often a risky investment, he added, with a high fail rate. Cities with more wealth usually see more investment in industries like biotech.

The state of North Carolina and the military could be avenues for additional funding for companies looking for options other than venture capital, Lanier said.

“Life sciences is the third largest industry in North Carolina and why doesn't that industry play a bigger role in Wilmington, outside of the clinical research organizations?” Roberts said.

“Why don't those companies flourish? Why aren't they nurtured? Where's the investment capital?” he said. “So these companies, these events, like the biotech event, the winning companies raise their profile among regional investors.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the program's title, N.C. Biotech Venture Challenge.
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