RTP incubator opens doors to showcase start-up companies

Apr. 02, 2013 @ 04:57 PM

The Research Triangle Park-based start-up hub First Flight Venture Center opened its doors Monday to showcase companies that have office or lab space at the center, such as one start-up that wants to commercialize environmentally friendly bricks made using bacteria.

Andrew Schwab, center president, said he’s looking to raise the visibility of the nonprofit incubator, which he said has been open for more than 20 years. On Monday, leaders of five companies with office or lab space in the center gave presentations to a group that included U.S. Rep. David Price, D-Chapel Hill.

 The congressman, who represents the 4th District, said he believes there’s a need to “re-educate” state and federal political leaders that “not all spending is created equal.” He spoke about the need for funding to support innovation, including for education, research and small business grants.

Schwab said officials at the First Flight Venture Center are want to raise new funding. He said it’s a challenge for a lot of the center’s companies to find funding from angel investors. He said he believes angel investors are interested in funding later-stage companies rather than early-stage, high-risk companies with big ideas and long development cycles.

Schwab said another possible funding source - grants through the federal Small Business Innovation Research program, which is coordinated by the U.S. Small Business Administration -- are highly competitive.

Another source of funding for some companies in the center is the N.C. Biotechnology Center, a private nonprofit in the Research Triangle Park that has given grants and loans to researchers and businesses. The center’s funding would be cut in Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal.

Under the governor’s budget scenario, the center’s state funding revenues would be cut $10 million in fiscal year 2013-14. The cut would be sustained in the subsequent fiscal year. In the current fiscal year, the center’s state appropriation is $17.2 million.

“I think that would be unfortunate,” Schwab said of the proposal.

Schwab said the center has received funding from the center to outfit laboratory space, and some of its companies have been and are supported by the center.

Jim Shamp, a spokesman for the N.C. Biotechnology Center, said in an email that the center received a grant of $62,307 in fiscal year 2009-10 and another $25,000 in the subsequent year to buy wet-lab support equipment.

Schwab said First Flight Venture Center has a staff of one and a half workers, and they would like to provide more formal support. Volunteer entrepreneurs offer their expertise to entrepreneurs at the center, he said.

The center houses 37 companies.

Monday’s presentations included one from Lonna Williams, CEO of Ridge Diagnostics. Williams said the company has developed a blood test for major depressive disorder. Based in San Diego, Calif., she said the company has about six people working at the First Flight Venture Center.

She said testing and analysis work is done in laboratory space at the center. According to Shamp, the company’s original funding was a $452,000 growth loan from the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

Another presentation was by Ginger Krieg Dosier, CEO of the company bioMASON, which is looking to commercialize bricks grown using micro-organisms, which she touted as a means to cut down on the energy use and environmental effects from traditional brick-making.

The start-up had received temporary office space from the N.C. Biotechnology Center before it moved into the First Flight Venture Center, according to Shamp.

Schwab said it’s an exciting time for entrepreneurs because of resources for them at Triangle universities, at incubators and through other programs, but he said there are also more people going after fewer resources.

“Only the best rise to the top,” he said.