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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Allbritton receives Inventor of the Year award

Nancy Allbritton and Jeffery Johnson, chair of the chemistry department, were both honored at the “Celebration of Inventorship.”

Carolina recognized Nancy Allbritton, the Kenan Distinguished Professor and chair of the joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carolina and North Carolina State University, with its Inventor of the Year award in recognition of decades of work turning her research into university-based startups.

She received the award at the “Celebration of Inventorship” event hosted April 20 by the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development and the Office of Commercialization and Economic Development.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost James W. Dean Jr. said Carolina continues to build an ever-stronger innovation ecosystem that helps our faculty, students, staff and community members lead change “through the translation of their novel ideas into practical benefit to help make our world better.”

“We’re pleased to recognize Dr. Allbritton for her distinguished career and achievements in innovation and commercialization,” Dean said.

Her research has resulted in technology advancements that address unmet needs in biotechnology and medicine related to single cell isolation and analysis, cell sorting and cloning, organ on a chip and tools for evaluating cell signaling.

Her approach to research is collaborative and multidisciplinary, incorporating expertise in the fields of cell biology and physiology, chemistry, biomedical engineering, physics, and material science to develop practical applications and solutions.

She has co-founded four startup companies and holds 11 patents, with eight more pending.

Researchers check data from sensor-covered cap in the joint UNC-NCSU biomedical engineering lab.

While accepting the award, Allbritton said translating research into commercial enterprises all starts with an inquisitive mind for cutting-edge science and hard work.

Her first venture was Protein Simple, which was acquired by Bio-Teche in 2014. Protein Simple provides protein analysis tools to help researchers gain a better understanding of proteins and their role in disease.

Keeping the right perspective throughout the entrepreneurial journey is key, she said, emphasizing the importance of leading change and embracing short-term failures as learning experiences.

It is also important to be flexible enough to listen and learn from others, Allbritton added.

She told the story of a company she tried to start that used lasers as a tool to separate and isolate cells – an approach that a vice president of a biomedical company urged her to abandon and rethink.

Lasers might have been cutting-edge technology, but needs proved to be more cost-effective and simpler for biologists to use.

“The simpler and more robust you can make something, the more they are going to want to use it,” Allbritton said.

Equipped with that insight, she started another company called Cell Microsystems that generated $2.2 million of revenues from 2012 to 2016 and is expected to generate $1.6 million this year.

It’s been a win-win for both Carolina and the company, she added, with about $1 million of revenues returned to Carolina so far.

Another essential ingredient to any start-up venture a “community of support” that includes student researchers in the lab, mentors, funders and company executives involved in technology, manufacturing and managing the business.

“The best way to start a company is with other people,” she says. “You split the workload, and it becomes a group effort and more vibrant because other people have ideas and come from other viewpoints.”

Her latest venture is Altos Biosystems, which uses a patent-pending stem cell technology to recreate the human intestinal epithelium for compound screening and microbiome research. The goal is to make drug discovery faster, cheaper and safer and to reduce the need for animal testing.

“Keep going and keep innovating,” Allbritton told fellow researchers. “Just because someone tells you you’re crazy, don’t believe them. They may be right, but go ahead, give it a shot and try it.”

Allbritton earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from Louisiana State University, her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, and her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She began her academic career in biomedical engineering at the University of California-Irvine and came to Carolina in 2007.