Building Economic Momentum

Ideas, Discoveries Propel
New Ventures

When looking for a big return on investment, it often pays to start small. That message was clear as NC State and Raleigh leaders last fall chose the headquarters of nanofiber start-up Xanofi as the place to launch a campaign to position Raleigh as the "City of Innovation."

Using technology developed at NC State, Xanofi is marketing innovative custom nanofiber solutions across several industries. The tiny structures have the potential to improve the efficiency of solar panels, extend the life of oil filters and increase the absorbency of diapers. The technology gives the company a competitive edge, says CEO Miles Wright.

It's just one example of the university's role as a nexus of research and engagement that is recognized across the state. “NC State really gets it,” says Don Hobart, the governor's chief advisor for business and economic development. He describes the university's record of technology transfer as “the stuff of an economic developer's dreams.”

That process — concepts proven by university research, then transformed into business operations and jobs is a key focus for Dr. Terri L. Lomax, the university's vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development.

After hearing from numerous groups in Raleigh looking to foster entrepreneurship, Lomax initiated the Raleigh Innovation Summit in January 2012 as a first step to encourage collaboration.

“We recognized that someone needed to focus on a plan of action,” she explains. “The university and its partners are committed to building a 'City of Innovation' that will help define Raleigh's economic future.”

Early Bird Gets the Patent

The foundation of economic development is applied research that's been central to the mission of NC State for 125 years. Innovation and entrepreneurship may be buzzwords today in many networks, but at NC State they are the lifeblood of a vibrant tradition.

Since its founding, NC State has fostered teams skilled in identifying problems and developing real-world solutions. Discoveries range from improved crops to the first synthetic aorta, from energy-saving lighting technology to groundbreaking DNA analysis.

More than 740 U.S. patents have been assigned to NC State in the past 30 years alone, with another 200 patent requests pending.

Faculty and graduates now have unique opportunities and challenges, says Robert Creeden, executive director of the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network. Funded by theBlackstone Charitable Foundation in 2011, the network is developing a regional pool of veteran master entrepreneurs who will help cultivate marketable innovations from universities and start-ups.

The goal: high-growth companies.

“It's a different take on standard mentoring,” Creeden says, describing the partnership that includes the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, NC State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina Central University.

Creeden is excited about the prospects. An experienced entrepreneur and investor, he formerly served as vice president of the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation, and was founder and managing partner of the Partners Innovation Fund at Partners Healthcare in Boston.

Researchers and entrepreneurs also are getting a boost from designation on the NC State Fast 15. The list includes Xanofi, which grew out of NC State's Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization program in the College of Management. The program paired business-savvy Wright with then-MBA student Peter Geisen and a small team of students.

The team evaluated the market potential of several patented innovations, ultimately focusing on promising nanofiber technology developed by Dr. Orlin Velev, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

With Wright as CEO and Geisen in charge of product development, Xanofi was born. Others want to take a similar path. The number of invention disclosures on campus continues to grow. By knowing what is happening across campus, NC State can help companies bundle concepts into marketable products and technology.

 

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Miles Wright, right, leads a tour of Xanofi's headquarters in November. From left, Raleigh Councilman Thomas Crowder, then-Mayor Charles Meeker, Vice Chancellor Terri L. Lomax, Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Councilman Eugene Weeks.