April 22, 2001


DURHAM, N.C. - A Duke University MBA student and a law student and his wife have won the $50,000 first prize in the second annual Duke Start-Up Challenge business competition with a plan to use engineered molecular circuits known as chemical gene switches to develop new drugs.

There also were two runner-up teams, which each won $20,000 in the final round Saturday of the Fuqua School of Business competition that began four months ago with 85 entries from business teams containing at least one Duke student. One of the runners-up also won two $5,000 prizes.

The winning team is called InGensity Inc. Its principals are Philippe Chemla, a molecular biologist who expects to graduate from Fuqua's Executive MBA program next year; Michael Hostetler, a Ph.D. chemist who will graduate from Duke Law School next month; and his wife, Erica Pascal, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and works for a local biotechnology company.

"We were really surprised that we won because the competition was fantastic," Chemla said. "We are now in the process of negotiating with some funders to make this company real. The fact that we won this prize will hopefully help with this process."

Hostetler said their plan, which is to come up with ways to turn specific genes on and off for therapeutic purposes, is still in the conceptual stage and winning the Start-Up Challenge "sort of validates the idea."

"Validation is more important than anything," he said.

One of the runner-up teams, called Novoculi, won a total purse of $30,000, including $5,000 each for best presentation, and for the "people's choice," selected by the audience in the final round. Novoculi's proposal is to develop an incision-less technique for refractive laser surgery. Its partners are Daniel Rogers Burnett, who expects to graduate from Duke next month with M.D. and M.B.A. degrees; Joseph Daniel Hewitt, who will finish his Ph.D. in chemistry at Duke in the fall; Joseph Walker, a second-year Fuqua student; Loy Hong Chia II, also a second-year Fuqua student; and Andy Rubinson, a first-year student at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

The other runner-up is called Lab Share. Christopher Affolter, a Fuqua student, and Michael McGarry, who graduated from Duke in 1994 with an engineering degree, plan to develop software that facilitates Internet-based collaboration between laboratory scientists.

The Start-Up Challenge is a three-phase competition. Any team with a Duke student may enter an executive summary in Phase I and receive feedback from judges. These submissions are narrowed down to the top 30 ideas for Phase II, where a complete business plan must be submitted. Finally, five teams are selected to move to Phase III, during which teams not only update their business plan, but also have the opportunity to meet with entrepreneurs, executives, venture capitalists and potential investors.

The first place winner will have the opportunity to represent Duke in the Global Entrepreneurs' Challenge at Stanford University in June. This competition includes winners of more than 20 competitions around the world and awards more than $250,000 in prizes.

Leading sponsor for 2000-2001 Duke Startup Challenge was Gary Snook, chairman, CEO and founder of Performance Inc. and a member of the Board of Visitors at the Fuqua School, who contributed $50,000 to the project. The effort also was supported by Duke's Office of the Provost, the deans of the Pratt School of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, Fuqua School of Business and the School of Medicine and the Duke Global Capital Markets Center.

The winners of the first annual Duke Start-Up Challenge are well on their way to developing their own companies. The first place team, OmnipreSense, a group of graduate engineering school students, has met with several venture capital firms, developed a prototype of its idea and expects to close the first round of funding soon.