GMU and ICAP logos transposed over a map of Virginia

GMU/ICAP Mentorship Program Connects Mentors with Growing Life Science Startups

Developing an ecosystem for life sciences startups takes a lot of energy and support. The Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP), a program of George Mason University and the Virginia SBDC, has been laying the groundwork to support these emerging companies and has tapped two new life sciences mentors to provide guidance for entrepreneurs.

ICAP, which is based on the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Lean Startups program, was launched with the goal of helping entrepreneurs take the right steps when bringing their technologies and innovations to market. ICAP pairs highly-experienced mentors with startup entrepreneurs from across Virginia in order to provide them with professional business wisdom gleaned from years within the industry. The mentors provide the entrepreneurs with guidance in business development and help them prepare business models that can lead to potential success within the state’s ecosystem. 

Virginia’s life sciences ecosystem includes more than 1,400 companies that employ more than 26,500 people. The mentorship program aims to bolster the state’s existing ecosystem, turning it into a mid-Atlantic powerhouse. ICAP builds on Virginia’s strong small business development programs that have been established across the state. Paula Sorrell, Associate Vice President of Innovation & Economic Development at George Mason University, said the tech mentorship program run through the university has been funded by Virginia Bio, the state’s life sciences advocacy organization, and is part of Virginia Bio’s Virginia Bio-Connect Grant, which is funded by GO Virginia.

“Virginia Bio and Mason’s Institute for Biohealth Innovations were working together and had identified a need for specialized mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs.  It corresponded with Mason Enterprise’s plan to build a team of tech mentors,” Sorrell said.

Life Science Mentor is a concept initiated by the program to provide support for startups that are trying to come out of the gate and need some guidance with organization and raising funds. The mentors are experienced with these processes and possess an understanding of where to find resources for lab space or legal help with the filing of patents. ICAP mentorship was put into place to help guide these startups over the various hurdles they will encounter in the early days, as well as provide ongoing support as the startups continue on their journey to market.  These new life science mentors are part of a larger group of roughly 15 ICAP mentors who work as part of a team to assist startups across all tech industries and functional areas, such as marketing, finance, sales, etc. These other positions are funded through GO Virginia, Mason, CCI, VIPC, and the SBA.

“The mentors we’re hiring have broad experience getting biohealth products to market, particularly with early-stage companies. They have technical knowledge of life science industries and a great coaching demeanor,” Sorrell said.

So far, the program has brought on two mentors, with two more planned to be tapped in 2022. Elizabeth Pyle, who has served as a business consultant for more than 20 years, was the first life sciences mentor tapped by ICAP. Throughout her career, Pyle has garnered significant experience working with startups. She also has significant experience within the life sciences industry itself. Prior to her role with ICAP, Pyle served as Chief Operations Officer for diagnostics company Aperiomics, which was acquired earlier this year. 

While she was with Aperiomics, Pyle said she had been interested in the mentorship program. Following the acquisition, she was now in a position to really take on that challenge. Since starting her role as a mentor, Pyle said she has been excited about working with these companies and is looking forward to helping them achieve those critical early milestones that will place them on a more sure-footing for success. 

“My background is on the entrepreneurial side of things. I bring a business element to the discussion and help the companies prepare for investor pitches,” she said. “This is a skill set that a lot of scientists don’t have. Investors want to see that there’s a good handle on the business side of things. If they don’t have the business side nailed down, the technology isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Willie McPheat, who spent a significant number of years with AstraZeneca, joined ICAP as a mentor at the beginning of December 2021. While he is still getting his feet wet in this new role, McPheat, who currently lives in Norfolk, said he is excited about guiding companies through the early phases of business. Prior to signing on with ICAP, McPheat worked as a consultant with Virginia life sciences companies, performing similar duties.

“This is a tremendous initiative,” McPheat said of ICAP. “We’re here to improve the startup activity and success in Virginia.”

McPheat said he is excited about the prospect of working alongside the other mentors and drawing from their expertise and experiences. After working as an independent consultant, McPheat said he is excited to work alongside a strong team and make a difference in the lives of these fledgling companies.

Even though ICAP is overseen by George Mason University, McPheat noted that the mentors are available to all life sciences startups in Virginia. 

“We’re hosted by GMU, but we work throughout the whole of the state. It makes no difference if people are affiliated with the university or not,” McPheat said. This is made possible by being part of the Virginia SBDC Network. 

Anyone interested in learning more about ICAP and the Life Science Mentors should reach out to the program’s director, Josh Green, at icap@virginiasbdc.org