As a Commonwealth Honors College student majoring in biochemistry and microbiology, Hailey Charest ’21 (in photo at right, second from right) had mastered giving scientific classroom presentations. But it was a much tougher task to appear in front of a crowd and a panel of judges to pitch her idea for a business, as she did in the campus’s 2020 Innovation Challenge. So, when Charest’s team won the top prize of $41,000, she credited their triumph to guidance and support from the lab of Professor of Biology Margaret Riley and from the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, host of the Innovation Challenge.
“The Riley Lab was the focus of my UMass experience,” says Charest. “And with the help of everyone at the Berthiaume Center, I wasn’t navigating the entrepreneurial world alone.”
Because Riley’s lab concentrates on drug development, it attracts students eager to put science to work in the world, and they often look to develop ventures. “It makes science come alive,” says Margaret Riley, who currently has 18 undergraduate students studying and working in her lab. She encourages researchers to take full advantage of Berthiaume’s deep resources—from pitch camps and entrepreneur clubs to mentoring and legal guidance. “They see that the skills they are learning in science can be applied in a lot of different ways.”
Riley (pictured left, in the audience of a Berthiaume pitch competition) adds that the experience of trying to commercialize lab discoveries helps students develop invaluable skills: “The students choose their own projects. They have to inspire others to join their team. They have to become good at promoting their project. A lot of that—such as training in elevator pitches—they learn through the Berthiaume process.”
The Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship provides access to entrepreneurial inspiration, connections, and resources to all schools and colleges at UMass Amherst. Its biggest annual event is the Innovation Challenge, which takes place in the spring and features ventures that have been coached and tested through lead-up pitch contests. The campus’s premier start-up competition is designed to assist and reward UMass students and young alumni to pursue novel ideas and develop them into marketable products by offering tens of thousands of dollars in equity-free funding as well as critiques and questions from a panel of expert judges.
“We’re a campus of innovators and entrepreneurs,” says Gregory S. Thomas, executive director of the Berthiaume Center. “We provide an environment where students can explore, take some risks, and make mistakes. We help them move forward with their ventures.”
Since the Innovation Challenge’s launch, teams affiliated with Riley’s lab have competed, and at least four have won funding; many have pursued their ventures even after graduation. “They are so excited, they can’t let their ideas go,” she says.
One such team is Bac-Be-Gone, the company founded by 2020 Innovation Challenge winner Charest with Hadley Beauregard ’22 and Bryanna Lexus Freitas ’20. They aim to create products that eliminate the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA, which kills thousands of people a year in hospitals across the country. The three continue to collaborate with Riley, their chief scientific officer. Right now they are using some of their Innovation Challenge prize money to advance the science behind the product.
“This is something that people need,” says Charest. “Our belief in it helped us win the Innovation Challenge.”
Charest leads Bac-Be-Gone while working full-time as a life science analyst for ClearView Healthcare Partners in Newton, Mass. She says, “My job is the perfect combination of science and business. Without the Innovation Challenge I don’t think I would have known I wanted to do this.” She also believes that the skills she honed through the competition, such as how to be a better science communicator, have benefited her career.
Another former undergraduate researcher in the Riley Lab, Griffin O’Driscoll ’19, recently left his job as a financial analyst to focus on Organicin, the company that he and Mathew Mitchell ’20 conceived for the 2019 Innovation Challenge.
Organicin specializes in designing post-antibiotic drugs to combat bacterial diseases. “The company we pitched back then is drastically different than what we are today,” says O’Driscoll (far left in photo). “Through the Innovation Challenge process and with feedback and follow-up from the judges, we learned how to define the scope of our business and identify needs in the market.”
O’Driscoll dreams of applying the Organicin platform everywhere from human health to veterinary medicine, plant diseases, and food production. In 2021 the company landed a spot in the Boston-based BlueSwell Incubator, enabling O’Driscoll to lease a lab bench in the UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences and to hire an undergraduate researcher—from the Riley Lab, naturally.
Thomas of the Berthiaume Center says that the link between the Riley Lab and Berthiaume reflects the strong relationship between Anne Massey, dean of the Isenberg School of Management, and Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and associate chancellor of strategic academic planning. “When we discover that our entities are not in competition, then we can solve problems together and move forward,” he says. “Those two deans exemplify the cross-campus relationships we need to advance Chancellor Subbaswamy’s vision for the Berthiaume Center to be a catalytic organization—and to build a stronger UMass Amherst community.”