Guest Columnist

Columnist: Innovation begins with Start-Up

April 15, 2013 

Laura Baverman, guest columnist

Duke University senior Matt Pleatman left campus Thursday night with a large cardboard check for $50,000.

The College of Engineering student and creator of the Contact Lens Refresh Card beat out 126 other student-run startup companies for the grand prize in Duke’s 14th annual Start-Up Challenge. And they weren’t light competition.

A new organic tea brand called Mati has already won best beverage in a national competition. Camras Vision secured $326,000 in government grants to develop a medical device that treats glaucoma. A Project Runway designer is the first client of the ethical apparel manufacturer, Judith & James. And NeuroSpire has businesses in 20 countries using its neuromarketing software platform.

Start-Up Challenge has become an innovation engine at Duke since its start in 1999 and is now being touted as a flagship program as the university evolves from a traditional learning institution to one that allows students to translate learning into doing and creating.

“For the 21st century, the university needs to be a different place. We need a different business model,” said Eric Toone, a former Duke chemistry professor who now heads the university’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. “The university has to have a different relationship with society.”

The Start-Up Challenge is a key strategy for Duke. Instead of business plans, students now make videos to pitch and demonstrate their startups. They fill out profiles on the venture capital site AngelList, essentially opening up for business or investment.

“We’re having students use the tools that will help them succeed in the real world,” said Howie Rhee, managing director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Fuqua School of Business.

The popularity and growth of the Challenge has fueled initiatives like InCube, a learning community for student entrepreneurs. A Duke Global Entrepreneurship Network holds events around the world to connect students interested in starting companies with alumni who’ve already done it.

Graduate entrepreneurship designations are offered at the business, engineering, public policy, environment, law and medical schools. And Duke alumnus David Rubenstein, founder of the Blackstone Group, recently gave $15 million to the center for even more programs.

Pleatman is certainly grateful for the sophistication of the Start-Up Challenge. He’ll use his winnings to file regulatory documents, secure patents and begin manufacturing of the Refresh Card, a contact lens case that’s slim enough to fit in a wallet, even with storage for solution. He’s already got major contact lens and solution manufacturers interested in the product.

“We have the team. We have the intellectual property. We have minimal regulatory requirements, and we have passion,” pitched Pleatman to investors. “The Duke Start-Up Challenge capital would be rocket fuel we need to get Refresh Card to market and into your hands.”

Laura Baverman is a journalist who spent eight years covering business for Cincinnati newspapers before moving to Raleigh.

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