By Courtney Kelly
The lion’s share of resources for North Carolina’s biotech startups has historically gone to firms located in or around Research Triangle Park. With three major research universities, multiple hospital systems and quite a few large tech companies, the Raleigh-Durham area has serious biotech muscle. But for many of Western North Carolina’s entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders, that’s no reason the region should sit on the sidelines.
Local life science companies recently received a significant boost through the NC Bioneer Venture Challenge, a competition designed to seed biotechnology innovation across the state. Sponsored by the N.C. Biotechnology Center and supported by nonprofit partners such as WNC-based Venture Asheville and Hatch Innovation Hub, the program gave three finalists in each region business mentoring, market research assistance and networking opportunities while they refined pitches for a panel of judges.
On May 26, Olfax Medical was named the western region’s winner, earning the company $20,000 and the chance to compete against four other firms from across the state for more capital. WNC’s two other finalists, Tyrus LLC and GreenLifeTech, received $10,000 each.
“The dollars awarded to Bioneer finalists were significant, as was the exposure, connectivity and guidance they received,” says Jonathan Snover, executive director of the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s western office. Currently working out of the Hatch Innovation Hub campus in downtown Asheville, Snover has been involved in WNC’s science and technology spheres since 2005. He’s confident that this region has the makings of a thriving life science sector, as long as those elements can be integrated and funded.
That 13 startups registered for Bioneer in WNC lends support to Snover’s confidence. “Our region had the second largest pool of Bioneer applications, and I think that’s a really great indicator of WNC’s ability to grow in this space,” says Jeffrey Kaplan, director of Venture Asheville. “We’ve already got innovators here; we’ve got business development support and funding to meet founders’ needs at every stage of their development. We’re a great place to build a life science company.”
In addition to nonprofits such as Venture Asheville and Hatch, which focus on assisting area startups, WNC’s business support ecosystem includes organizations like Dogwood Health Trust and the Pisgah Fund that focus on funding health-related initiatives. “The startup landscape here is very reflective of our geography,” says Kaplan. “It’s resource rich but can be hard to navigate.”
Building a biotech company means facing the usual startup challenges while developing cutting-edge technology and navigating rigorous regulatory processes. It’s a multilayered task requiring lots of support, Snover says. By fostering partnership among multiple nonprofits, he continues, the Bioneer program streamlines biotech founders’ access to resources, thereby improving their chances of entrepreneurial success.
For Bruce Roesner, co-founder and president of GreenLifeTech, the guidance he received in clarifying his company’s message was especially helpful. “Being an engineer, I don’t always know how to explain what we’re doing in a relatable way,” he says. “Our Hatch and Venture Asheville mentors had a lot of background in marketing, sales, etc., and they’ve supported us in communicating the benefits of our technology effectively so we can attract the customers we want to help.”
Dr. Richard Massen, a physician and founder of Tyrus, appreciated the guidance and networking components of the program. “The biomedical world is fairly complex,” he said, “and my mentorship team advised me in taking steps — like forming strategic partnerships — that’ll enable my company to succeed within it.”
Made in WNC
“Asheville doesn’t have to follow the same blueprint as other regions,” says Jonathan Beckwith, an engineer and CEO of WNC Bioneer winner Olfax Medical. “A lot of times, folks believe life science technologies must emerge from areas focused on research; we could carve out a niche for ourselves in practical solutions to everyday problems.”
That approach holds true for the region’s Bioneer finalists. Beckwith, along with Olfax founder Dr. Jason Cook, is developing nasally administered therapeutics for patients with neurological conditions such as migraines. GreenLifeTech has developed a produce-preservation solution designed to reduce food waste around the world, with its first product, a countertop household unit, available early next year. And Tyrus is using 3D printing technology to improve outcomes for ventral hernia repair patients while cutting down on the procedure’s complexity and cost.
Two of the finalists are medical technology firms, a fact that Beckwith doesn’t see as coincidence. As of May 2021, health care practitioners such as doctors and nurses accounted for roughly 8.5% of Asheville’s workforce, representing a deep pool of potential talent. “Throughout my career, I’ve learned that wherever there are clinicians, there are ideas and innovation,” says Beckwith.
Kaplan envisions a symbiotic future for WNC and its life science companies. From a financial perspective, he points out, investors are eager to invest in biotech firms, which could bring better wages and more capital to the region.
The establishment of a local biotech scene could also help attract larger firms to the area, says Snover. This would boost the number of high-quality jobs available to WNC residents, diversify the economy and incentivize local talent to stay in the mountains.
What’s more, life science companies founded by residents in tune with WNC’s unique needs are positioned to create technologies that make positive impacts on their neighbors’ lives. Cook’s development of the Olfax treatment system, for example, emerged from his work for the National Health Service Corps in a rural WNC clinic.
The particular set of barriers encumbering his patients there — lack of insurance, lack of broadband internet access, lack of options for care — meant that many suffering from migraines were not getting the treatment they needed. Some were being prescribed medications, such as opioids, with dangerous side effects. “To provide a rapid, nonaddictive treatment on the go — this would not only dramatically improve the lives of patients like Dr. Cook’s, but it could help countless people around the world,” says Beckwith.
And while Roesner built GreenLifeTech to address global issues of food waste and food insecurity, he’s committed to ensuring the company benefits his community at home. “Two percent of our product will be going to nonprofit organizations like food banks, kitchens and so on,” he said. “We’ve also made it a priority to donate revenue from our business to local charities, and we intend to keep that up in perpetuity.”