Dr. Jennifer McCall, a lecturer in UNCW’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology, began her entrepreneurial journey after completing her Ph.D. at UNC Charlotte with UNCW’s Business of Biotechnology postdoctoral program, which allowed her to continue her studies in marine biology as well as earn an MBA from the university. In the postdoctoral program, she worked on “translational” science—the process of “translating” a scientific idea into a marketable product. McCall was developing a project into a shellfish consumption safety test that was quicker and easier-to-use than ones currently on the market, and she applied for a federal Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grant.
“I started the company [SeaTox], I received the grant, and now we’ve done research and development… and we’re selling the kit through the university,” Dr. McCall said.
SeaTox Research Inc., McCall’s company, works on “anything having to do with marine natural products,” Dr. McCall explained. “We’re looking to develop a drug delivery system, our toxin assay comes from marine environments… Our overall goal is to commercialize anything that is a marine-derived product, that we can research and develop and take from discovery to a product.”
At the moment, SeaTox’s only employees are cofounders Dr. McCall and her husband, but McCall is hoping to hire students before long. “We train these amazing people [in biology and marine biology],” McCall says, “and then there aren’t always scientific jobs available in our community. I teach biotechnology and I have all these amazing kids asking, ‘do you know of any jobs, do you know of any internships,’ and I say ‘I wish I could hire you!’ I just haven’t been able to get over that hurdle yet with federal funding because of the business model I have.”
When McCall began SeaTox, it was an R&D company built on SBIR funding. But federal grants are not a sustainable source of money, and McCall wants to be able to offer some security for new hires. Through sales of the seafood testing kit and contracting out use of some of the lab’s equipment, McCall hopes to begin this process soon.
McCall and SeaTox are not CIE tenants, but McCall notes that she is very involved with the CIE.
“I do anything they ask me to do,” she says, laughing. “There have been some really amazing events, especially the legal events. I don’t think the CIE was that big when I was starting my business, but I wish that it had been… a lot of that information would have been very helpful.”
McCall is also grateful for the support she received from the postdoctoral program and UNCW itself, which “has been incredibly supportive and incredibly nurturing to a startup like [mine],” she said. “It was a bit alien to me, being a scientist, to go and start a business. Some of it I dumb-lucked into, some of it I messed up and had to fix later. I would like to try to save [other people] some of the hurdles I went through.”
Her biggest advice for academics considering entrepreneurship, especially those seeking grants, is that they need to be able to clearly and concisely articulate a project’s impact, ability to help people, and innovative aspects. “With science,” McCall says, “your plan needs to be concrete—you need to have supporting evidence. [I need to see] why I should care about it, why this is going to be a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
The innovation is important, especially when it comes to translating science to product. “Innovation is about having the ability to see a failure as an opportunity,” McCall says. “You’re never always going to succeed, but if you’re able to see the silver lining and you’re able to capitalize on that, that’s where a lot of innovation comes from.”
As for the future?
“I always have projects,” McCall says. “There’s always science that I want to do! There’s not enough days in my life to pursue it all.”
But it all comes back to marine natural products and marine science—commercializing products from the sea.