A North Carolina High School that Spins Out Entrepreneurs

Opinion

Over the years, many successful ventures have emerged from North Carolina’s rich concentration of university researchers. Some of the state’s innovators get an even earlier start: high school.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) began in 1980 as an innovation itself, founded as a public residential high school for academically talented high school juniors and seniors interested in STEM subjects. Schools with a STEM focus are fairly common these days, but in the early 1980s North Carolina’s economy was still based on traditional industries, including tobacco, furniture, and textiles. NCSSM’s founders—then-Governor James Hunt, Duke University President and Senator Terry Sanford, and author John Ehle—envisioned an institution that would invest in the state’s human and intellectual capital to build leadership and economic progress.

NCSSM has served as a model for 18 similar schools around the globe. For the past decade, Newsweek has ranked it one of the top public high schools in the country. NCSSM students regularly win top prizes in national and international competitions, including the coveted Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, the Singapore International Mathematics Challenge, the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award, and Moody’s Mathematics Challenge. Behind all the trophies and awards, NCSSM has created a vibrant ecosystem where entrepreneurship and innovation flourish. Among the school’s nearly 9,000 alumni are high-profile entrepreneurs (see a few of them here) who launch North Carolina businesses, educators who continue to lead advances in research, and practicing professionals.

What strikes me most is how the school opens doors. When I meet NCSSM students or alumni, they usually tell me, “This school literally transformed my life.” When I ask them how, they often tell me about growing up in a small North Carolina town where there was no one else like them—driven, talented, and intellectually curious. Then they came to the School of Science and Math and found academic challenge and the support of like-minded peers.

My fellow NCSSM Foundation board member, Carl Ryden, a 1989 graduate of the school, tells just such a story. He credits his career—engineering degrees from North Carolina State University and MIT, and work at several successful tech start-ups—to NCSSM. Ryden grew up in rural eastern North Carolina in a single-parent household and received free/reduced lunches in the public school system. He was smart and tested very well, but Ryden was so bored in school that he often played hooky and had to serve in-school suspensions. Thankfully, his ninth grade math teacher challenged him, rekindled his academic fire, and ultimately recommended NCSSM to him. As he boldly shared in his admissions interview, “This school was made for students like me.”

And it was: A public, tuition-free school, required by the North Carolina Legislature to accept students from all of the state’s congressional districts and dedicated to challenging bright students with a range of courses they would not find in their local schools. Ryden learned how to work harder and smarter, he says, and he built his confidence while surrounded and encouraged, for the first time, by equally bright peers.

Halfway through engineering studies at NC State, Ryden landed a summer job with IBM where worked on a small, skunkworks-type development team. The group’s leader, Tim Cook, went on to become the CEO of Apple. Their project evolved into the ThinkPad brand, the first-ever notebook computers. After graduate school at MIT and work overseas with venture capital firms, Ryden came home to North Carolina and founded PrecisionLender, a Charlotte, NC-based software services company that provides pricing and profitability management software to banks. The company has doubled in size every year since its founding in 2009. It currently serves nearly 200 banks and will price almost $200 billion in commercial loans this year through its software.

In recent years, NCSSM has created more formalized courses and competitions to encourage young entrepreneurs. Alumni and board members such as Ryden have pitched in. Randy Myer, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, joined the board of directors of the NCSSM Foundation and taught the Introduction to Entrepreneurship course as a pilot seminar in 2007. Its success led to a full two-trimester course which has grown in popularity, with an enrollment of up to 30 students and a number of local entrepreneurs volunteering to teach. Most recently, Scott Maitland, a Chapel Hill restaurant and distillery founder, has led the course.

In 2011, Ryden created a second course, Applications in Entrepreneurship, taught alongside chemistry instructor Myra Halpin. The one-trimester course supports selected students who already have an idea for a product or service as they work to bring their idea to market. Five students, for example, refined their plans for FreshSpire, an app that helps solve food waste problems, in the applications class. The young women, now university undergraduates, are bringing their app to market soon thanks to funding from the Clinton Global Initiative and The Big Idea Project.

The innovation continues with recent graduates and current NCSSM students. As a senior last year, Senita Portlock was named a national BioGENEius winner out of 28 finalists. Now at Duke University, she holds a psychiatry lab assistant position, a role normally reserved for upperclassmen. Her classmate, Jenny Wang, was inspired to research better brain imagery analysis after a near crash. Before her senior year at NCSSM, Wang was selected to an exclusive program for high school students that allowed her to conduct research at Harvard Medical School. She is now a Harvard freshman.

Just as Ryden returned to NCSSM to support the school that gave him his entrepreneurial start, other alumni have also given back. Jud Bowman and Taylor Brockman, class of 1999, started the mobile content company that became Motricity while they were still at NCSSM. Both have become serial entrepreneurs, and Bowman’s honors include a listing at one of MIT Technology Review’s “Top 100 Young Innovators.” In 2010, they created a $100,000 endowment to support students in research, entrepreneurship, and academic competition. The Bowman-Brockman Endowment supports students that could follow in the entrepreneurial footsteps of the endowment’s namesakes. Adam Bowker, now a senior, won a Bowman-Brockman grant last year, which he used to build a sophisticated quadcopter drone from scratch. Bowker’s plans include aerial photography for real estate, sporting events, and agriculture.

Surely, NCSSM’s founders are proud, seeing all that has sprouted from their seed of a vision four decades ago. I know I am, and I expect even greater things in the future from NCSSM.

Seasoned entrepreneur and biotech executive, Christy Shaffer, Ph.D. has over 20 years of experience in the life science industry. She is the Managing Director of Hatteras Discovery and Venture Partner at Hatteras Venture Partners. Follow @

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