From Entrepreneurs to Encapsio
A Q&A with Three Duke Entrepreneurs Marrying Technology with Business
It’s 9 a.m. at Twinnie’s Cafe. I am scheduled to meet with the three founders of a new Duke startup called Encapsio: Wyatt Shields, Wes Day and Nick Kirby. Day and Kirby are both MBA candidates at the Fuqua School of Business, and Shields is a recent graduate of the Pratt School of Engineering. Before entering the cafe, I had gone over the conversation in my head many times: lots of technical terms I wouldn’t know, intense conversations about business, etc. With a somewhat nervous anticipation, I open the door and hear Wyatt talking to Nick about the plan for the day. They spot me and welcome me with two million-dollar smiles—maybe this wasn’t going to be as nerve-wracking as I thought. We sit down and begin with an introduction about Encapsio. The startup aims to protect and controllably release active ingredients in topical formulations with a novel particle encapsulation and delivery system for skincare and other applications. Despite the fact that Encapsio started only a year ago, the trio has won numerous grants and plans to launch its first product early next year.
Can you briefly describe your background?
Kirby: I am currently a second-year MBA candidate at Fuqua and the CEO of Encapsio. I have a background in chemical engineering and have always been passionate about startups and came to Duke with an intention to pursue one. Like me, Wes is also a second-year MBA at Fuqua and the current CFO. He came to Fuqua with a background in finance. We soon identified our shared passion for startups, so we decided to team up, reaching out to various inventors on campus through the OLV (Office of Licensing and Ventures). After reviewing more than 30 potential options, we finally decided on Wyatt's silicone particle technology. Wyatt has a background in biomedical engineering and materials science. He received his PhD degree in biomedical engineering from Duke in 2016 and is currently a postdoctoral associate at the Research Triangle MRSEC (Materials Research Science and Engineering Center).
What is the research about?
Shields: Early on, my work focused on finding a way to make silicone particles uniform in size and precisely tunable in stiffness. The goal was to make an acoustic cell sorter. When Nick and Wes met me, we considered a wide range of applications extending well beyond cell separation—for instance, yoga mats, inks, paints, foods, pesticides, etc. Based on extensive research and a substantial number of conversations with experts in various industries, we decided that skincare is a huge industry that is relatively underserved, and our technology is ideally suited to make a major impact.
What led you to the decision to work with Dr. Shields specifically?
Kirby: Wes and I ultimately set on Wyatt's research as we wanted to select a technology that could be brought to the marketplace within a relatively short timeframe. Wyatt's technology is unique in that it can be adapted to solve different problems across industries, which is a good recipe for a startup and matches with our interests to build a business on a candid platform technology.
What is the biggest challenge you have run into so far?
Shields: The biggest challenge at this moment is trying to close the gap between what we produce in the lab and what the companies want to see. During the early phases, our team focused on achieving proof-of-principle performance metrics to show our technology works, but we are now moving on to the testing phase of our spheres in a final formulation. This entails controlled release studies through human skin samples as well as human toxicity studies, both of which are currently under way through third-party labs.
Has Duke provided you with any support on the entrepreneurial front?
Shields: Pratt actually has a great resource in Bill Walker, who is the Mattson Family Director of Entrepreneurial Ventures. I've actually known him for several years, as he was one of my favorite professors in undergrad at UVA and my mentor while I interned at his company in Charlottesville, Hemo- Sonics LLC. We first met Bill as a team when he moved to Duke in 2016 to work with faculty, students and staff to help create and support high-impact, technology- based commercial ventures. Since starting his position, he has done just that. He has an infectious level of energy that makes it both a joy and a privilege to work with him. Bill has been enormously helpful in providing us with guidance on critical business decisions regarding IP strategy, investor connections and relations, and grant writing support, and we look forward to working with him for years to come.
In 2016, Encapsio won two grants from NC Idea and The Big Launch Challenge, two prestigious startup competitions. What do you plan to do with the funds?
Kirby: As you just mentioned, Encapsio won a $50,000 grant from NC Idea and another $20,000 grant from the Big Launch Challenge. We plan to mainly use the funds on testing and getting results that meet the standard in the industry. With the testing results ready to go, we hope to get more support from investors and companies and launch our first product early next year. The funds will also cover minor expenses, including things like travel and customer outreach.
What is your next step?
Kirby: Currently, we are lining up operations, for instance, fundraising, supply chain, location and production capacity. With our platform technology, we can produce a wide range of possible products. Since we only have limited resources and funds, we would like to identify one or two products from the market to focus on and launch. As we gradually establish our brand and start generating revenue, we will keep developing other products along the way. Relating to the market, we will also modify the products to better serve our customers in later stages.
Shields: As Nick mentioned, we are waiting for the testing results to come back in a few months. Basically, the results would tell us how well our technology performs, how willing people are to purchase our products and how we should price the products.
Do you have any advice for young undergraduates and graduate students who are also interested in entrepreneurship and technology?
Shields: There is a classic saying in the field of engineering: we tend to find a solution first and then identify the problem later. I would suggest you go the other way around—identify the issue first and then use it as a motivation to find solutions.
Kirby: I would say that the people are definitely the most important consideration. Make sure you are on the same level of passion and commitment with the people on your team and genuinely enjoy working with them.
Day: Embrace the chance to take risks. Duke is a unique place that provides a safe environment for trying new things and taking risks. You can also find a myriad of resources and lots of talented people with complementary skillsets. Try to make the most out of the connections and resources here.
Weiwei "Esther" Wang is a firstyear Pratt student interested in pursuing degrees in mechanical engineering and history.