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Supporting diversity and innovation: Meet the NIA Start-Up Challenge winners

Joy Toliver
Program Analyst,
Office of Strategic Extramural Programs (OSEP)

Last year, NIA launched the inaugural NIA Healthy Aging Start-Up Challenge and Bootcamp to Foster Diversity and Accelerate Innovation, led by our Office of Strategic Extramural Programs (OSEP) and Office of Special Populations. This entrepreneurial prize opportunity was designed to mitigate the unique obstacles faced by underrepresented scientists and entrepreneurs — including women, racial and ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, and people with disabilities — when applying for NIH small business research grants.

Today, we are pleased to announce the five Challenge prize innovations and their entrepreneurs. These were among 20 finalists competing to win one of five $60,000 cash prizes to help accelerate new technologies in aging research:

  • Ore Adedoyin, Ph.D., Mayowa Agbaje-Williams, Pharm.D., MPH, Janet Akande-Dokun, Ph.D.

    Moremme VA

    Hormone-free treatment for vulvo-vaginal atrophy in postmenopausal women.

    Ore Adedoyin, Ph.D., co-founder
    Mayowa Agbaje-Williams, Pharm.D., MPH, co-founder
    Janet Akande-Dokun, Ph.D., co-founder

  • Neuroage founders

    NeuroAge Therapeutics

    A drug discovery platform for neurodegenerative disorders based on the aging clock.

    Christin Glorioso, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder and CEO
    Priyanka Joshi, Ph.D., co-founder and CSO

  • Devita Stallings, Ph.D., R.N., founder and CEO of Pressure Points

    Pressure Points

    Digital health app for hypertension self-management in African American older adults.

    Devita Stallings, Ph.D., R.N., founder and CEO

  • Cameron Carter, M.S. and Joseph Akoni, M.S.


    Machine learning-driven platform connecting senior homeowners and renters to vetted home remodeling companies to assist with aging in place.

    Cameron Carter, M.S., co-founder and CEO
    Joseph Akoni, M.S., chief product officer

  • Denice Wharton, MBA, and Elizabeth Howard


    Online management system that simplifies and streamlines the licensing and renewal process for certified nursing assistants, home health aides, and other medical professionals.

    Denice Wharton, MBA, founder and CEO
    Elizabeth Howard, development director

Filling a funding gap for diverse entrepreneurs

Since its launch, more evidence has highlighted the NIA Challenge’s timeliness, including a 2022 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report that found persistently low levels of NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) participation among women and underrepresented minorities. Additionally, these groups remain significantly underrepresented in venture capital (VC) funding, with just 2% of all VC funding in 2021 going to women who establish businesses and 1.4% to Black business founders.

The Challenge provided multiple layers of support and training for the finalists, including a four-month entrepreneurial bootcamp featuring one-on-one mentorship with experts from research institutions and VC firms. Participants also attended more than 20 virtual entrepreneurial and SBIR workshops featuring more than 30 subject matter experts on topics including customer discovery, intellectual property, and FDA regulatory strategy. The finalists also participated in an in-person workshop at the Redefining Early-Stage Investments Conference in Boston, where they were coached by Life Science Nation on how to tell a compelling story and pitch to investors.

Rave reviews from finalists

The positive impact of the challenge experience is best summed up in the words of the finalist entrepreneurs, for example:

  • “The kind of things that I learned here … they don’t teach us in business school.” Reginald Mbawuike, MBA, co-founder, CEO, and COO, Generating Innovation Ventures and Enterprises
  • “You can read a book about how to be an entrepreneur. On the other hand, you can be immersed in a system specifically designed for people like us, to meet other people who succeeded in this space, who are willing and able to grow us into successful businesswomen.” Ore Adedoyin, Ph.D., co-founder, Moremee VA
  • “NIA has provided us amazing access to experts and mentors who have provided a clear path for bringing our product to market.” Zachary Hermes, M.D., MBA, MPA, J.M., founder, Odyssey Health

What’s next?

Most of the finalists recently applied for NIA SBIR funding or are planning to apply to upcoming submission cycles. Some have participated in the NIH Applicant Assistance Program to get help with submitting their SBIR applications. The teams have also developed their own peer mentoring group to foster relationships and promote collaborations. NIA OSEP will continue to engage and support these innovators as they launch their startups and seek funding, partnerships, and research collaborators.

Check out the March 16 Pre-Submission Webinar and submit your idea by April 20!

Submissions are now being accepted for the 2023 Challenge. If you’re inspired to compete, be sure to attend our March 16 pre-submission webinar to learn more and have your questions answered. After that, visit the Start-Up Challenge webpage for full details on this year’s contest and submit your application by 11:59 p.m. ET on April 20.

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