Durham, NC - 5/8/2024

How Does the “Valley of Death” Impede North Carolina’s Growth?

North Carolina is home to one of the nation’s top public university systems, rightfully hailed as our “crown jewel.” Within these institutions, researchers are developing groundbreaking technologies that with proper support—and the end goal of bringing the product to market—can drive job creation and foster economic growth in every corner of the state.

However, developing tomorrow’s technologies doesn’t happen automatically. Historically, both public funds supporting university research and development (R&D) and, later, private sector backing work together to turn promising ideas into thriving businesses. Many promising discoveries, though, don’t make it out of the university R&D portfolio and into the private sector because they languish in the “valley of death.”

What is the Valley of Death?

The “valley of death” is a notorious stage in the R&D process where a technology has reached proof of concept (meaning the technology works in a very controlled lab setting), but still requires significant development to operate in real-life settings. The private sector usually does not invest in a discovery that’s only achieved proof-of-concept because there is still too much risk to justify the expense. More work has to be done at the university R&D level. This dynamic has underpinned American innovation and dominance for 80 years – universities incubate breakthrough discoveries, and then the private sector does what it does best: commercializes them. This process has yielded transformative advancements including the polio vaccine, MRI technology, and plasma screens.

Two challenges face promising technologies at the critical phase between publicly funded research and private investment. First, a lack of funding to support continued R&D after proof-of-concept has been achieved. Second, the absence of robust intellectual property (IP) protection services and business expertise within universities that are required to determine if technology can succeed in the market and attract private investors. Funding and support services are especially hard to come by in regions outside of mature innovation ecosystems like the Research Triangle.

In life sciences, the valley of death may be confronted when scaling up production of a promising treatment in advance of FDA analyses and potential human trials. In electrical engineering, the valley of death may occur when replicating a transistor in progressively higher voltage environments in which it will ultimately be used.

“In the realm of higher education, where groundbreaking research meets commercialization, navigating the ‘valley of death’ – the critical gap between discovery and market – presents unique challenges,” UNC Greensboro’s Chief Innovation Officer, David Wyrick, said.

Wyrick continued, “NCInnovation plays a crucial role in this journey by fostering a culture of swift innovation and strategic collaboration. An exemplary case is a pioneering technology in the energy sector under development at UNC Greensboro right now. With the right support, this discovery will be able to transition from a lab-scale proof of concept to industrial-scale production, while ensuring that the technology performs consistently at a larger scale and meets industry standards. This level of progress is only possible through support that can open the gates for transforming academic discoveries into real-world applications that can drive economic growth and societal progress.”

How the Valley of Death Impacts North Carolina

While the valley of death is a challenge for researchers across the country, North Carolina is falling behind the national average in commercializing our world-class research base. Some of these technologies die on the vine in the valley of death while others flee to competitor states that are successfully targeting North Carolina’s most promising emerging technologies.

As a result, North Carolina is losing researchers, intellectual property, and revenue when it should be reaping the benefits of the state’s world-class academic assets, supportive public sector, and invested private sector.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. With more investment and coordination to advance research breakthroughs through the valley of death and towards commercialization, North Carolina can translate UNC System research outputs into job creation and economic growth in every corner of the state. What’s more, a strong university-to-industry pipeline can secure North Carolina’s place as a national leader in innovation, attracting more talent and private investment to the state. After all, this exact pipeline has been the foundation for American technological dominance for decades.

A Solution to the Valley of Death

NCInnovation was created to fortify and grow the university-to-industry pipeline right here in North Carolina. NCInnovation focuses intensely on supporting researchers during the critical middle stage of the R&D process, maximizing the probability that a promising research initiative can advance far enough to secure private investment and transform into a thriving business.

We do this through two programs that solve the core challenges presented in the valley of death. The first is a grant program that provides direct funding to public university applied researchers to mature their technologies. These merit-based grants ensure that funding goes to projects with the highest commercial potential and that commercial outputs remain in North Carolina, benefiting residents across the state. The second is regional innovation networks, led by regional directors who connect university researchers with industry partners, private sector knowledge, and support services. Collocated at UNC System institutions across the state, our regional innovation network directors ensure that mentorship and resources are available to researchers.

NCInnovation is more than just a funding body; it is a critical enabler of North Carolina’s broader innovation strategy, poised to transform the state into a hub of technological advancement and economic prosperity. By bridging the treacherous valley of death, NCInnovation supports R&D for breakthrough technologies and helps advance North Carolina to the forefront of American innovation. Through collaborative efforts between universities, industry, and strategic funding initiatives, NCInnovation is setting a benchmark for how regional innovation ecosystems can thrive and drive economic prosperity for all involved.

NCInnovation is 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation focused intensely on accelerating commercialized innovation from North Carolina’s universities. NCInnovation deploys funding, mentors, and support services so that North Carolina university proofs-of-concept turn into companies and create jobs that remain in North Carolina. Learn more at