Digital Health Venture Studio Accelerates Innovation

A unique startup model’s first success could spell better outcomes for transplant patients

By Kelly Collins | Published September 14, 2022

Bob Dieterle and Carol Lewis

Gaining traction over the past few years, venture studios build companies rapidly from start to finish. The venture studio model has been proven to reduce risk and drive success.

Bob Dieterle, an entrepreneur-in-residence with the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, spearheaded a collaboration with UNC Health to bring this novel approach to UNC to support the commercialization of digital health research. The Eshelman Institute engaged high-profile partners including High Alpha Innovation, Amazon, and Microsoft to build the first university-based digital health venture studio in the country.

An initial pilot demonstrated the vast potential of a model that taps into both industry-driven entrepreneurial expertise and UNC’s immense research portfolio. Ideas were sourced from across campus, and 25 promising digital health concepts participated in the 13-week pilot program. Two lead concepts moved onto a sprint week—a high-stakes, all hands-on-deck forcing function where teams work non-stop to test assumptions and build confidence for a go or no-go launch decision.

From this pilot, a new startup was formed. Epulate is a cloud-based platform that accelerates and automates the matching of organ donors and recipient patients through machine learning models developed by Dr. Eric Weimer, lab director at UNC’s transplant center, and Dr. Katie Newhall, an associate professor of mathematics. The innovative machine learning algorithm automates the time-sensitive process of donor organ matching to immunologically compatible patients, promising to accelerate and improve organ transplantation outcomes.

The UNC Pharmacy Foundation provided a $1.2 million grant to deliver pre-seed support for Epulate and other advantaged start-ups that emerge from the venture studio.