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The Daily Tar Heel

Innovation Showcase gives UNC students the opportunity to show off their businesses

innovation event
Kids Code, a startup featured at the 2019 Innovation Showcase, focuses on teaching children in low-income communities how to code. This photo was taken May 2017 during a Kids Code Saturday Workshop at the Southwest Chatham Live Oak Public Library in Savannah, Georgia, where the program originated. Contributed by Angel Patel.

Innovate Carolina’s Innovation Showcase, an annual event which took place Thursday night at the Friday Center, acts as “a time for us all to get together, share, celebrate and then connect with the community and investors,” said Judith Cone, vice chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development.

The event, which was held for its 10th year, hosted nearly 50 teams from startup companies, social ventures and research initiatives that are led by UNC students, faculty and graduates or by local innovators, allowing the teams to interact and network with investors.

“Six hundred people have registered to come and, really, highlight what they do and expose them — these companies — to investors and the general public, because you never know where a network is going to become very helpful to a person,” Cone said. 

In the past, the event was smaller and focused more on faculty members’ ideas to improve treatments for disease, but over the years, Innovate Carolina has “expanded it to look more holistically at the entire campus,” Cone said. Now, the participating teams’ ideas range anywhere from educational and social ventures to scientific and technological innovations.

“The innovation showcase is really the culmination of a year's worth of efforts, and sometimes numerous years' worth of efforts, of student, faculty and alumni innovators,” said Brock Pierce, the marketing communications manager at Innovate Carolina.

Pierce talked about the importance of the event, which connects innovators to others in the innovation community and to investors while allowing them to get experience presenting their ideas. 

The economic side of the startups that come out of these events has been extremely successful, Pierce said. As of 2019, Pierce said that 8,873 jobs had been created by startups affiliated with the University, many of which came from Innovation Showcases.

Additionally, Pierce noted that, alongside jobs, active startups affiliated with UNC are also responsible for generating about $10.6 billion in revenue, and 94 percent of the startups generating that revenue are headquartered all across North Carolina.

Pierce mentioned Phoenyx, “a venture that has a dual environmental and economic purpose.” While providing living-wage jobs for those struggling to find employment in the Chapel Hill area, Phoenyx uses recycled billboard vinyl to create bags, which ultimately keeps that vinyl out of landfills.

Cone mentioned a few of the teams who attended the 2019 showcase who have had very successful ventures. Phyta — which aims to cultivate seaweed and use it as a sustainable alternative to some consumer products, a switch that could help against climate change — has won many competitions and was able to present their idea to the United Nations, one of six teams to do so. Seal the Seasons, which flash-freezes produce that farmers are unable to sell fresh and sells them in supermarkets, has helped producers earn a steadier flow of income and has prevented food waste.

Another company to come out of the showcase, G1 Therapeutics, has excited many people around the world with its potential to improve cancer treatments, Cone said.

Angel Patel, a sophomore computer science major, attended the event and presented her startup, Kids Code, a venture focused on making the study of computer science accessible to children in low-income communities and under-resourced schools.

Patel started the venture when she was a high school sophomore in Savannah, Ga., after she discovered how few resources she could access to practice computer science.

“I think it’s something that has always been traditionally taught at the college level and hasn’t been engaged at a younger level, but I think there’s so much value in engaging students with it early,” Patel said.

In her first year, Kids Code was accepted as one of 10 teams by the CUBE program, which facilitated her connections to people in the area and was able to establish a partnership with the Durham County Library System. Patel attended Thursday’s showcase and praised the event for the connections it provides.

“I think it’s great to connect with other people who might be doing similar things to you or just working in the same, sort of, general sphere as you,” Patel said. “It’s just great to get the name out there for the program, and it really helps raise awareness for the work that we’re doing.”


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