The Duke Start-Up Challenge is full of extraordinary young people who, by pulling up their own bootstraps, are putting together a variety of important and impactful products and services. One question I had again and again during this competition was how young, unvetted students decides to start their own businesses.
October 6, 2015
Despite Challenges as a Woman, Minority in BioTech, Duke Start-Up Challenge Winner Tackles $1B Market
SiNON founder Afreen Allam wins $50K at annual Duke University business plan contest in a field of impressive young businesses.
Well, here’s what Rebecca Holmes of healthier dessert brand Ello Raw had to say, “I’m going to answer with two statements. No. 1 you don’t prepare—you simply run fast and jump off the cliff. Two, once you’ve taken the leap, you have to start building your parachute as efficiently and effectively as possible. Build fast, prepare, research, work, learn, because that will determine whether you land at the bottom…or crash and die.”
This hard-nosed, self made, young-gun mentality was present amongst all contenders at the Duke Start-Up Challenge, in equal or greater magnitude.
The Duke Start-Up Challenge was founded in 1999 with the mission to boost creative and entrepreneurial students from the academic world into the business world, while supporting them along the way. Previous winners include Rajvi Mehta whose GudNeSs bars help to fight anemia in India, and Max Hodak who went on to raise $1.2 million for his latest startup, an automated cell and molecular biology lab called Transcriptic.
This year’s contestants had some very big shoes to fill. From Kanabis’s stylish and cruelty-free footwear, to a tea house and wellness center in the form of Sangha, this year’s contestants came to the business world with a variety of approaches. Edulyf designs lesson plans sold to underfunded schools in India in an effort to increase the quality of education and social mobility in poverty-stricken areas. DropBuy created a platform to connect real estate agents and potential buyers to remove scheduling hassles.
The winner of this year’s Grand Finale and $50,000 Wickett Family Prize was MBA student Afreen Allam of SiNON (formerly Cromoz)—a company seeking to revolutionize drug administration through creating easy passage through the brain-blood barrier. She described it as a “trojan horse capsule” that can efficiently and safely deliver drugs to the brain and cerebrospinal fluid through the bloodstream.
Her work began in 2008 doing research at NC State University as an undergraduate biochemistry and molecular biology student. She was working on a process to safely deliver medicine to the pancreas in pancreatic cancer patients. It was during this time when she decided she was onto something, and that she should consider patenting her delivery process. “I knew what a patent was, but that was the extent of it”, she had to say about her first patent in 2009.
Animal testing has shown that this seems to be a reliable and efficient way to deliver Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s drugs through the blood brain barrier. Things have been going so well and so quickly for the SiNON team that Allam filed a third patent for this product/process less than 24 hours before the finale pitch. This is an ambitious and fast moving product, which one judge believes could be a part of a “billion dollar market”.
While it seems like things are going as well as they possibly can for her, It hasn’t always been an easy road for Allam. When I asked her what other funders she is working with, she paused and said “my father”. This entire venture had come from out of pocket for her family. Just as a side-note, biomedical research isn’t cheap.
The challenges haven’t been purely financial. When asked about other difficulties as a young CEO in the biomedical world she had this to say, “One, I’m young. Two, I’m a female. Three, I don’t have a Ph.D.. and I’m a minority of living in the U.S.”
She says she has faced plenty judgement and rejection. But as her father often tells her “It doesn’t matter what other people think.”
Allam is a determined young woman. “I never applied to a job. This was a dream I had. If you love something, you have to make it happen… When you’re young, that’s when you can take the risk. You have more energy, you have more intensity. I don’t think age really matters”.
Her innovative, take-no-prisoners and committed attitude is what makes a great entrepreneur, but each and every contender at the Challenge is an adoptee of the “jump before you can fly” attitude. It’s why the judges I spoke to said they had such a hard time in this “extremely close” competition.
Every team I spoke with had similar things to say about committing to a product or service that they truly loved, the freedom of being able to control their own life and business, and a desire to create not just a product, but something that benefits individuals in one way or another.
Another interesting commonality was use of language like jump, fly or dive when discussing their entry into the business world. Breaking into industry as a young person and controlling your own future is an incredibly thrilling, dangerous and rewarding experience. This sovereignty, however, it is not for the cautious or faint of heart.
As Jeremy Lipkowitz of Sangha said, “You can’t prepare. You just have to jump.”
Photo credit: Duke University Innovation & Entrepreneurship