“I just can’t stay away,” joked Michael Valerino, co-founder and CEO of Solar Unsoiled. Having graduated from Duke with his PhD in Environmental Engineering in 2022, he was back on campus in the Gross Hall Atrium for the annual StartupConnect Networking Fair, surrounded by students waiting their turn to talk to him about job and internship opportunities. The company—for which Valerino won the 2021 Clean Energy Prize—offers a software solution to help solar farms mitigate profit losses from panel soiling.
Each year StartupConnect draws hundreds of students from across Duke to visit with startup employer representatives, many of them Duke alumni. Co-hosted by Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Pratt, Fuqua, and the Career Center, the event allows students to find internships and career connections and learn what it’s like to work at a startup.
This year marked the fair’s return to an in-person gathering—which organizer Anna Jacobs, Education Program Manager at Duke I&E, explained is a vital component of the event. “We try to cultivate an environment that’s slightly more casual than a traditional career fair,” she said. “We really want the students to gain honest insights about what startups are looking for and the startup life.”
Guest startups spanned a wide range of industries, from solar energy, to medical devices, to marketing and publishing. “There were several healthcare companies represented, which is my field of interest,” said Siba Siddique MEM ’23. “It was also amazing to see student-led projects represented at the fair.”
“We were just hoping there would be enough students interested to consider our on-site roles in Portsmouth, New Hampshire,” said Belle Feliciano of Piroutte Medical. “We ended up talking to students nonstop for three hours!”
The event drew many local startups as well, capitalizing on Duke’s location; North Carolina, led by the Raleigh-Durham area, is drawing increased attention from startup investors despite a downturn in funding nationally. “Being in the Research Triangle, with its growing network of startups and entrepreneurial support organizations, gives us so many opportunities for collaboration,” Jacobs said.
CareYaya Health Technologies, a startup based in Research Triangle Park, operates a tech platform that connects families in need of affordable elder care with caregivers, all pre-health career students at nearby universities. “Duke students exhibit the kind of interdisciplinary knowledge that is critical in a high-ambition startup like CareYaya,” said CEO Neal K. Shah. “They also show great passion for our work and a desire to advance health equity for our aging population through technological innovation.”
Many of the guest companies attend the event each year. “We’ve hired a summer intern from an initial conversation we had at StartupConnect each of the last two years,” said Kevin Gehsmann E’19, co-founder and CEO of PROTECT3D. “It’s a great event that brings together students from different backgrounds, and it was even better to be back in person this year.”
Stories like Valerino’s and Gehsmann’s—he co-founded PROTECT3D, which 3D prints protective athletic gear, as a student football player at Duke—exemplify the supportive nature of Duke’s innovation and entrepreneurship network.
“Participating in events like StartupConnect has been a great way for us to strengthen our network within the Duke entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Valerino said. “The support and mentorship our early-stage startup has received has been invaluable, and we are excited to be in a position to support this community of innovators.”