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A crowd of 400 packed into the Kenan Stadium Blue Zone on the University of North Carolina campus April 9 to hear from leading researchers and rising entrepreneurs at the 2015 Innovation Showcase

The 16 presenters included faculty studying neuron molecules in an effort to prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as undergraduate students pitching their online donation platform. 
 
The Innovation Showcase, which is in its fifth year, is an opportunity for emerging startups to share their work with the community and network with potential investors and advisors, said Judith Cone (pictured above), who has led UNC’s innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives since 2009.
 
“We have so many faculty and students who are working hard to ensure their amazing discoveries and ideas eventually make a difference in the lives of others,” said Cone. “The showcase is one example of what we are doing to help them with that journey from idea to impact.” 
 
After opening remarks by Chancellor Carol Folt and Cone, the companies pitched their ideas for five minutes each. The pitches were followed by a networking session where founders had the opportunity to demonstrate their products and talk one-on-one with attendees. 

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt at Showcase 2015
Chancellor Carol Folt kicks off the annual UNC Innovation Showcase April 9, 2015 at Kenan Stadium. Credit: Andrew Wood
The companies were broken down into 3 different categories: 

“Innovations to Watch” showcased new technologies being developed in Carolina’s laboratories by faculty. While the research is promising and exciting, most of these ventures are still figuring out how to commercialize their work. The Innovation Showcase gave them an opportunity to share their discoveries with the scientific community from the Triangle as well as potential investors and business experts who can help turn brilliant scientific discoveries into viable businesses. 
 
One of these inventions is PhysioCam, a physiological sensor that allows doctors to measure vital signs through a video camera without any physical contact with a patient. Two professors in the Department of Psychiatry—Stephen Porges and Gregory Lewis, developed the technology. 
 
Lewis, who recently joined the faculty after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that the Innovation Showcase helped him learn to prepare his message for a broader audience. 
 
“I think that the need to craft a message that could translate our scientific progress into an easily understood commercial application was invaluable,” said Lewis. “One great aspect of this process was the guidance in crafting this message that was provided by collaborators... The opportunity to present this message to such a large audience was incredible.” 
 
Lewis and his team are still searching for a commercial application for PhysioCam. Some possibilities include fitness monitoring, early identification of infection and security checkpoint threat assessment. 
 
The “Emerging Startups” category featured newly formed startups seeking advice, coaching, management and funding. 
 
One of the companies in this category is CommuniGift, a platform that aims to change the way people donate products by moving the process online. The company was founded by three undergraduate students in 2013. The students are now juniors at Carolina and have since added a fourth cofounder. They launched a successful pilot test with the Salvation Army of Southern California over the holidays and are looking to take that experience and grow. Here's an ExitEvent story about the company from last December. 

Winner of this year's SECU Emerging Prizes for Innovation grand prize and $50,000, Seal the Seasons, also pitched its process of collecting produce just before it spoils, cutting, packaging and freezing it and then selling it to consumers, all to reduce waste from farms or grocery store shelves and offer fresh produce all year-round.
 
The “Early-Stage Companies” featured more established companies with strong management teams who were seeking partners and investors. 

Tom and Jenny’s (which ExitEvent just featured last week) is one of those early stage companies that presented Thursday. The company makes sugar-free candy that is delicious and is actually good for teeth. The team is comprised of Tommy Thekkekandam, a former management consultant, and Sindhura “Jenny” Citineni, a practicing dentist. They joined Launch Chapel Hill in January and have been expanding distribution since. They also won the alumni and faculty division of the Carolina Challenge last month.
 
Thekkekandam said that the Showcase gave them an opportunity to meet potential investors and partners who can help in areas such as manufacturing, clinical testing and intellectual property. 
 
“We have a growing hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, but need events like the Showcase to keep the momentum building," said Thekkekandam. "For a company like Tom & Jenny's, getting a forum to tell our story and attract attention from investors and potential collaborators is critical and the event provided exactly that.” 

The 2015 Innovation Showcase comes at a time when the University is making an unprecedented effort to promote innovation and entrepreneurship at Carolina. The University recently announced the creation of the Carolina Research Venture Fund, a $5 million fund marked for investment in early-stage companies using university-owned intellectual property. 
 
While several of the startups at this year’s Showcase will likely qualify for funding from the Carolina Research Venture Fund, UNC has taken steps to support other entrepreneurs as well. The teams at the Showcase have received support from programs such as Launch Chapel Hill, 1789 Venture Lab, Carolina KickStart, Launching the Venture and the Carolina Challenge, among others. Each of these initiatives is designed to meet specific needs of the Carolina startup community. These programs support a diverse group of entrepreneurs that includes undergraduates, graduate students, alumni and faculty with startups in a wide range of fields. 
 
This diversity was on full display Thursday night. Undergraduates shared the stage with Ph.Ds. and biotechnology companies pitched alongside social ventures. Folt, Cone and others at UNC believe this commitment will produce results that will have far reaching impact well beyond campus in Chapel Hill.