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When Zack Weaver and Victoria Goldenshtein—both fifth-year biomedical engineering PhD students—were considering doctoral programs, they were each won over by Mike Tadross, who dazzled them with presentations about the roles they could play in his new lab.

Victoria Goldenshtein in the lab
Victoria Goldenshtein in the lab

The Tadross lab develops technologies to rapidly deliver drugs to genetically defined subsets of cells in the brain. Weaver, with his work on genetically encoded electrophysiology—a technology that allows an electrode in the brain to permanently “glue” to preselected neurons—and Goldenshtein, who is developing a technology that enables simultaneous generation and screening of billions of proteins for a specific function, were the first students to join the lab.

Both Weaver and Goldenshtein came to Duke already interested in commercializing their research.

“I knew I wanted to lead my own projects,” Weaver said, “and I was thinking about the various trajectories: academia, industry, entrepreneurship. The idea of taking a technology that I developed, commercializing it, and bringing it to the world drives me. That was always a journey I wanted to take.”

“It would be extremely satisfying to see the progression of a technology from its inception, where you start with basic science, all the way to its final application, where it can benefit society in addressing the unmet need,” Goldenshtein said. “I wanted to work on technologies that would provide that sense of accomplishment and allow me to see the bigger picture.”

Now, both have technologies they can patent; with Tadross, they’re looking into the feasibility of starting a company to commercialize the lab’s work.

Fostering an Entrepreneurial Mindset and Skills

To best prepare themselves for a future in entrepreneurship, Weaver and Goldenshtein explored various programs and avenues at Duke, including I&E Graduate Certificate courses and Design Health courses.

“Duke is an incredible place with a wealth of resources, and as we start to see our time here coming to a close, we want to take full advantage of them,” Weaver said. “The I&E Certificate and classes provided an excellent way to do that. They introduced us to concepts we had never seen before in our classes. It’s been incredible and really broadened our understanding of what it means to be a scientist.”

Zack Weaver in the lab
Zack Weaver in the lab

Goldenshtein said that many graduate students simply don’t consider themselves entrepreneurial until exploring their options. “[Business & Organizational Fundamentals] helped me realize that many skills we develop in the laboratory setting during our PhD training are highly transferrable across many fields and career paths,” she said.

Weaver and Goldenshtein emphasized the importance of seeing entrepreneurship in action through professors and guest lecturers.

“We learned the personal stories of company founders and gained exposure to people who have taken their scientific advances through the patent process, through commercialization, and successfully made it to market,” Weaver said. “But these stories we’re learning are not from 10 years ago; they are from right now. For instance, I was on a call with [Design Health professor] Joe Knight—currently CEO of InnoVasc—and in the middle of the call he had to say, ‘Hold on, I have to take this because we’re doing a funding round now.’ It’s been incredibly insightful to get this kind of real exposure.”

Joining a Nationwide Community of Student Entrepreneurs

After exploring the resources available at Duke, Weaver and Goldenshtein decided to add a resource of their own to the landscape: Nucleate is a nationwide student-run nonprofit organization that facilitates the formation of new life science ventures without taking equity.

Members can form teams, find industry mentors, get support with clinical and legal strategy, find fellowship grants, take workshops, and network with faculty, biotech executives, first-time founders, and investors. Working with peers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Weaver and Goldenshtein launched the Research Triangle Park chapter of the organization this fall.

“Duke’s Office of Translation & Commercialization does an excellent job of getting some of these technologies to commercialization,” Weaver said. “For some technologies that are still in the lab and haven’t made it that far yet, Nucleate hopes to help these ideas come into a creative, collaborative, constructive environment to help shape those nascent scientific ideas in ways that can be commercialized and can then be run through existing Duke channels.”

Weaver and Goldenshtein said Nucleate is helping them to better understand the entrepreneurship ecosystem specific to RTP, which is where they want to build their company. Simultaneously, they can establish a national network of students who may be interested in coming to the region after graduation to pursue their own ventures or work for startups.

“In Boston it’s getting harder to stand out from the crowd because there are so many companies,” Weaver said. “VCs seem to be looking outside their immediate geography, and RTP presents the perfect opportunity to start developing life science ventures.”

With Nucleate, Goldenshtein and Weaver say they’re ultimately providing yet another resource to strengthen the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Duke and in the region.

“Entrepreneurship can be perceived as a challenging career path, and it might be hard for students to know where to start,” said Goldenshtein. “Nucleate provides a very constructive low-stakes environment that can serve as a helpful first step towards their entrepreneurial journey”.

Applications for Duke Design Health are due November 19, 2021. Applications for the I&E Graduate & Professional Certificate are rolling.