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The next Facebook? Two ventures born in the dorm room Add to ...

The successful company started in a dorm room has gained almost mythic status. But at Duke University, the dream is more than a myth or pipe dream. Meet two entrepreneurs who made their homework into thriving companies.

Matthew Kane, CEO at Precision BioSciences

The way Matthew Kane tells it, Precision BioSciences was born at a two-year-old’s birthday party at a Japanese steakhouse. His classmate, who later became his partner, got into a conversation with two young post-docs researching genetics. “The big breakthrough that these guys came up with was a way to re-engineer a particular class of enzymes that are capable of actually scanning along a whole genome to find one site,” he explains. “When they find it, it can break the DNA apart and stick something in, pull something out or just tweak a gene a little bit to improve it.”

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Mr. Kane, who earned a master’s degree in biological engineering before coming to Duke University for an MBA, immediately recognized the potential of the technology. He chose Duke in hopes that he’d stumble across someone working on great research he could help bring to market. “The scientists wanted to remain focused on the technology and we could get the company up and running.”

Mr. Kane explored the business by competing in Duke’s Start-Up Challenge, and won second place. Through an internship at a venture capital firm, he learned about financing a startup.

“The potential for the technology is outstanding,” he explains. “Genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis can be caused by a single base pair mutation in your entire genome in many cases. With technology like this, there is the potential that we could some day use it to correct diseases.”

Doug Eisner, COO, GrassRoots Biotechnology

For an assignment in a class on launching new ventures, Doug Eisner was teamed up with Philip Benfey, a Duke University biology professor who was interested in commercializing his research. They started by trying to create better crops for biofuels by controlling gene expression in plants and after Mr. Eisner graduated in 2007, they built GrassRoots Biotechnology around a key piece of technology Dr. Benfey created to monitor root growth. Six years later, the company houses its cutting-edge lab in a brick building in downtown Durham, N.C. Since the infrastructure required for basic biotechnology research is so expensive, Mr. Eisner credits Duke’s support for its early success.

The university offered facilities and key support in commercializing intellectual property before the company attracted funding from Monsanto and other partners. But Mr. Eisner says the most significant key to GrassRoots’s success, and the reason he was attracted to the Triangle region, is the people. “We can get great scientists really easily – they’re all over the place,” he says. “We’ve benefited so much from the great talent pool here.”

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