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NCSSM Graduates Give Back to Support Innovation

 From the Durham Herald-Sun:

NCSSM alumni look to fuel students’ projects with endowment

September 1, 2011

By Melody Guyton Butts

DURHAM – To hear Jud Bowman tell it, he and fellow tech wunderkind Taylor Brockman got “extraordinarily lucky” with their N.C. School of Science and Mathematics dorm-room project that found its way to the Nasdaq as Motricity.

The 1999 NCSSM graduates were able to attract $5 million in venture backing for their project, then called Pinpoint Networks, by 2000, and they’ve moved onto myriad other successes: Bowman’s now at the helm of the Durham-based phone-application company Appia, and Brockman is the enterprise software architect for the energy-management company Consert.

But not every kid with a fantastic idea is lucky enough to find the money to bring it to fruition. NCSSM students, with their rigorous course loads, aren’t allowed to have jobs, Bowman said, so “unless your parents are rich, you have no way to get the funding for the materials, for the things to get it off the ground.”

That’s where he and Brockman hope to help. They announced Wednesday the creation of the Bowman-Brockman Endowment for Entrepreneurship & Advanced Research, kicking it off with an initial gift of $100,000.

Their plan is to grant about $5,000 each year to five to 10 students or groups of the “super creative” students at NCSSM, Brockman said. Grants will be awarded in three areas: for entrepreneurial projects; for research projects; and for travel to academic competitions.

The endowment was partly inspired by a presentation that two Intel Talent Search winners gave to the NCSSM Foundation board. After the students described their “curing-cancer type of project,” they told board members that they weren’t able to take their research to the next level because they lacked the funds to purchase tissue samples, Bowman said.

“So we said to them, ‘How much would that cost?’ And they said, ‘Oh gosh, it’s a lot of money. It’s $300,’ ” he continued. “And of course everyone reached into their pocket, racing to give them the $300. It was that great of an idea. In some respects, [the endowment is] trying to solve that $300 problem.”

All NCSSM students are eligible to apply for grants, the first of which will be awarded in October. The tough decisions will be made by a panel comprising Bowman, Brockman, NCSSM biology instructor Ashton Powell, NCSSM student body president Krunal Amin and Steve Nelson of the Wakefield Group, which provided Bowman and Brockman with their initial venture capital in 2000.

NCSSM Chancellor Todd Roberts said he’s thrilled with Bowman's and Brockman’s decision to create the endowment. It fits in nicely with the school’s efforts to encourage students to explore entrepreneurship and go beyond doing “research for research’s sake,” he said.

The endowment “allows us to provide yet another way to support students in advanced research, taking ideas and trying to turn them into innovative business ideas,” Roberts said. “It’s giving us ways to provide extra resources for students to expand on their learning at school.”

In addition to financial support, selected students will be mentored by the endowment’s board. After all, it was just a little more than 10 years ago that Brockman and Bowman were in their shoes.

“When we went through it, every day was a new opportunity and a new challenge,” Brockman said of the long hours the pair spent working on their project in NCSSM’s Hunt Dormitory. “We just worked, worked, worked, worked, worked, and finally something really amazing happened.