UNC physician gets an assist from the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative to market next-generation x-ray technology

Dr. Etta Pisano spent 20 years developing and evaluating new devices for the detection and diagnosis of breast cancer. When her breakthrough medical-imaging technology began to progress rapidly in recent years, she wanted to create a company to produce it.

The result is NextRay, Inc., a new venture developed by Pisano and four co-founders with the help of student teams from several UNC entrepreneurship programs as well as alumni and partner organizations in the region.

"This is an important new technology—one that will improve medical imaging and safety to patients because it makes better pictures at a lower radiation dose," says Pisano, president and chief scientific officer for NextRay, vice dean for academic affairs at UNC School of Medicine, and director of UNC's new N.C. Translational and Clinical Sciences (TraCS) Institute. TraCS, a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded initiative, is part of a consortium of medical research institutions across the country working to speed the process of converting laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients.

Students connect Pisano to resources

NextRay's medical imaging technology produces much more detailed images than current x-rays with less than one percent of the radiation dosage. Its commercialization journey began when Pisano received a grant for her new venture from N.C. Idea, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that provides bridge funding to entrepreneurial companies through grants, loans, and venture capital, and the connection she made with UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School MBA student John Lerch.

Lerch was working as an intern with the N.C. Idea grant partner that funded Pisano's venture. He was placed there by Carolina Venture Fellows, an internship program for Kenan-Flagler MBAs directed by the Kenan Institute's Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Lerch helped review Pisano's grant, then helped her write a business plan and lay the foundation for raising capital. He also connected Pisano with other UNC resources, including the Carolina Challenge, a signature program of the Kenan Institute-led Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative, Kenan-Flagler's Student Teams Achieving Results (STAR) program, and a supportive entrepreneurial community.

"Etta knew the medical applications for the technology but there were other applications we wanted to consider," says Lerch, "and we wanted help optimizing how we took the technology to market."

Enter the STAR program, which places teams of top MBA and undergraduate students in corporations and not-for-profits to help them build effective business strategies. Lerch served as STAR team project leader. UNC alumnus Tom Mercolino, vice president of business development for Global Vaccines, Inc., served as faculty advisor.

Winning business plan evolves

As NextRay's business plan evolved, Lerch suggested the team enter the 2009 Carolina Challenge. The competition provides workshops, coaching, and networks to help UNC students, faculty, and staff develop their ideas for new ventures while competing for $50,000 in prizes. The NextRay team won the $15,000 John Stedman Commercial Entrepreneurship Award in March.

"We learned something every time we presented the business plan," says Pisano. "The Challenge also helped prepare the team for the Rice competition." Rice, the largest graduate-level business-plan competition in the world, selected NextRay from 339 entrants to compete against 41 other teams.

NextRay turned for help to Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and CEI's Launching the Venture (LTV) program. Zoller put together a team of coaches to review NextRay's pitch prior to the competition. NextRay won $142,000 in prizes at the Rice event in April.

"The help we received from the LTV coaches was fantastic," says Lerch. "Our beginning presentation to them was night-and-day from the final presentation used at Rice." NextRay took second-place at Rice and five other awards, including best medical device and best life science plan.

NextRay moves forward

"The next step for NextRay is to secure funding," says Pisano. She aims to raise $4.5 million through private investors and grants.

"The competition prize money will help to finance patent and travel costs and allow me to hire more help."

Pisano is now passing on the knowledge and connections in technology transfer she has gained to other entrepreneurial researchers at UNC as director of the new TraCS Institute. Among the institute's first projects is a new center being created by the medical school, Kenan-Flagler, and the Office of Technology Development to help commercialize biomedical discoveries at UNC. She has tapped Mercolino to be one of three new entrepreneurs-in-residence to support that effort.

"CEI does a good job of educating people across campus about what commercialization involves and the role entrepreneurship plays in the process," says Pisano. "TraCS is about building on that to help our community of scientists turn their ideas into tools that can improve health and impact more people."


Entrepreneurship • Economic Development • Global Competitiveness

Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
Kenan-Flagler Business SchoolThe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Campus Box 3440, The Kenan Center, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3440 USA
919/962-8201 • kenan_institute@unc.eduwww.kenaninstitute.unc.edu