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Venture Studio

Eshelman Innovation Pursues Digital Health Solutions for Black N.C. Community

Four Eshelman Innovation team members huddled around a table reviewing a presentation on a laptop

A $750,000 grant will help Eshelman Innovation create PowerUp, an initiative to address food insecurity and mental health challenges faced by Black North Carolinians. Eshelman Innovation, alongside the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Founders Initiative (HBCUFI)—a California-based nonprofit—will help source ideas from N.C. A&T and try to refine them into digital for-profit ventures.

Eshelman Innovation (formerly Eshelman Institute for Innovation) was founded in 2014 and is part of the Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Bob Dieterle, Managing Director of the Venture Studio, said that the best ideas for solving problems will come from the communities they affect.

“At Eshelman Innovation, we’re focused on getting health out of research universities with innovative health research, or great ideas that are stuck in communities that lack the infrastructure and capital,” Dieterle said.

Throughout this spring, the plan for PowerUp is to create detailed accounts of the two defined issues—food insecurity and mental health—facing the Black community and ideas to tackle them. The initiative will work closely with advisory board members from North Carolina and across the country to refine community members’ ideas into “venture-backable” startups. The goal is to launch two startups in the fall.

The U.S. life expectancy in 2021 was 76.1 years—the lowest it had been since 1996, partially due to the pandemic—but was 70.8 years for Black Americans.

In 2021, just over 10 percent of U.S. households and nearly 20 percent of Black households were food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Humana Foundation provided the grant and chose to focus on food insecurity and mental health. It is the charitable arm of Humana, one of the nation’s largest health insurance companies.

PowerUp will host its first event at N.C. A&T on Wednesday, which will include a presentation and brainstorming session to spark ideas at a dinner that about 100 students, faculty and community members are expected to attend.

HBCUFI attempts to connect HBCU students and graduates with venture capital funds for initiatives to help solve problems in their communities.

“Once we’ve created that top of the funnel of all the best ideas and solutions out there, we’ll start vetting those opportunities through the lens of: is there a commercializable business that could be created and scaled to solve the problem not only in the Greensboro area, but nationally,” HBCUFI President and Founder Marlon Evans said.

Evans said he had no “preconceived notions” on what the solutions will be, instead trusting the community members affected by the issues.

“You can say, ‘Hey, let’s build 10 different grocery stores in your neighborhood,’ and that would solve the problem. That could be a great thing for somebody to do, but that’s not what we’re looking to do,” Evans said.

Joel Wiggins is the interim executive director at N.C. A&T’s Center of Excellence in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, another key partner in PowerUp. CEEI hosts a weekly “family dinner night” on life skills, business and entrepreneurship for students at the HBCU.

He said that similar discussions should be a larger part of the college experience and that students should be on campus to create ways to move society forward.

“It should be ‘No, you’re on this campus to be solution-minded to all the different things facing our society’ including innovative and creative things that can help move our society forward,” Wiggins said. 

Earlier this month, Eshelman Innovation completed a project in Asheville that developed two ideas to help address the opioid crisis. Dieterle said he now expects to spend at least half of his working hours on PowerUp.

“Eshelman [Innovation] is really going to be deeply rolling up our sleeves on this one for the next six months I would think, easily. It’s a big initiative for us,” he said.

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