Editor’s note: This is the next in a series of interviews from WRAL TechWire featuring “Legends – The men and women who helped create and build North Carolina’s technology and life science ecosystem.” These leaders will join Jim Goodnight, Monica Doss, Dennis Dougherty, Charles Hamner and Venessa Harrison as members of WRAL TechWire’s virtual Hall of Fame, which named its first members in 2017.
Karen LeVert has come almost full circle from her youth, growing up in the tiny farming town of Johnstown, Ohio, population 2,000, and her first job out of college in IT as a computer programmer for Nationwide Insurance.
Now 56, LeVert, a well-known member of the Triangle entrepreneurial ecosystem, is president and co-founder of Southeast TechInventures and chief operating officer and co-founder of Ag TechInventures Inc. Both are innovation labs focused onlaunching promising early-stage technologies into the marketplace with the latter focused on bothagbiotech and digital farming or the IT of agriculture.
LeVert, who doesn’t look her age, attributes it to good genes. She grew up in a family that treasured bothacademics and athletics. They were expected to earn As while participating in extracurricular activities. She has very fond memories of their Friday evening tradition of going to the YMCA to play basketball and swim with her mother, Eunice, father Caris, brother Darryl, and sister Cynthia. She mentions how grateful she is for her dad, who taught her to play baseball, football, basketball, and golf right along with her brother in the early 60s (not a common occurrence).
They treated chores the same way. “I had to mow the lawn and he had to do dishers,” LeVert notes.
Sports had a profound effect.
Her mother, a nurse, also played basketball in high school, a tradition the 5’11” LeVert would continue in high school, where she also participated in track and excelled in her studies, eventually becoming
Salutatorian of her graduating class. She went on to play basketball for 4-years in college, and in 2015, brought home the silver medal in the National Senior Games with her “over 50” team. Her brother, Darryl, was also a college basketball player and college golfer. Darryl’s sons were also college basketball players, and nephew Caris LeVert now plays in the NBA for the Brooklyn Nets.
Sports had a profound effect on her. “In high school and college, playing sports, you learn so much about teamwork, about how to win, how to lose, and how to push through when it hurts sometimes.”
Her father was an avid and excellent golfer, although he began as a caddy back in the days when black
Americans could not play on most courses. He also survived being a prisoner of war in Korea for three
and a half years, an ordeal she feels likely shortened his life but instilled in her a tremendous tenacity to never give up.
In addition to sports, he sparked her interest in electronics systems and technology. “He worked at the Newark, Ohio, Air Force Base (since closed) on the Minuteman missile brain. He was asuper smart guy. So I always had an interest in technology.”
Her college education at Eastern Michigan University was initially funded through academic scholarships, but she eventually earned a “full ride” basketball scholarship after initially playing on the team as a “walk on.” She graduated in 1984 with a degree in business administration with a concentration in computer science.
On the rise at Nationwide
Her first job out of college was as a computer programmer for Nationwide Insurance. She moved steadily up the corporate ladder at Nationwide, first at its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, where she held positions as a programmer and systems analyst before transitioning into supervisory positions.
Nationwide promoted her to accounting systems and controller after she earned her MBA from the University of Dayton in 1995. She then was relocated to North Carolina where she managed a 500 person Service Center in Raleigh. She was with Nationwide from 1984 through 1998.
“It was a fantastic company for me from a development standpoint,” LeVert says. “I never applied for the new positions, I was picked. I learned a lot.” The company sent her to the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC, an expensive program and she was fast-tracked to become a top executive at the company. But she began experiencing the type of frustrations not unfamiliar to many corporate executives with their own ideas.
“I got to the point where I thought some things should be changed, but you had to go through all these approvals. I was wanting to do more. They paid me well, but I felt that if I had my own business, the sky’s the limit.”
Becoming an entrepreneur
So, LeVert took a leave of absence from Nationwide to pursue her first entrepreneurial venture, a Florida-based franchise called Environmental Biotech, which sold “bioremediation” products that used freeze dried organic bacteria to eat the grease, sugars, and starches in food processing such as in restaurant, hotel kitchen and corporate cafeteria drains and equipment without using caustic chemicals.
“I was looking for an opportunity and saw an ad from someone trying to sell his franchise,” LeVert says. But she went to the source instead and started her own franchise operation. “I learned about sales,” she notes. “It was my first experience of cold calling to get business. I paid for everything out of my pocket, tapped out a 401K, put my savings in, and got a Small Business Administration loan.”
She ran the company from 1998 through 2001. Eventually, she sold it to another individual.
“It wasn’t a 2X or 4X exit,” she points out.
Next, she joined a Silicon Valley startup, Level Edge in San Francisco.. It was an early Internet play that helped coaches target talented high school sports athletes. While there are all kinds of recruiting services now, at the time, those high school athletes “were flying under the radar,” LeVert says. The company offered free packages on outstanding athletes to coaches.
Winners and learners
It raised $10 million in 1999, LeVert’s first experience with venture capital. “It was strange to have all that money in the bank and not worry about revenue after running the other company out of my pocket,” she says. By the time the company tried raising a B round of capital, though, “The market was upside down.” The Internet bubble burst, capital dried up, and businesses dropped dead daily.
Nevertheless, “It was an interesting experience building a company in Silicon Valley. Very expensive for labor and rent.” When she talks to students, LeVert says, she tells them, that in business, “You have winners and learners. You learn so much more when things go wrong than when they go right. It’s not life and death.”
After Level Edge, LeVert was not sure what she wanted to do next. She was consulting for a couple of companies when she met Kristina Johnson, PhD, currently Chancellor of the 64 school State University of New York (SUNY). At the time, she was Dean of the School of Engineering at Duke University. Later she would join the Obama administration as Under Secretary of Energy.
Genesis of Techinventures
She was “A smart and prolific university inventor and had started several companies,” notes LeVert. They began talking about how much research gets stuck in university research labs because it’s early, and inventors tented to be focused on research, not on how their research can be applied in a commercial marketplace. Light bulb!
That LeVert says, was the genesis of Southeast TechInventures (STI), which LeVert, president, co-founded in 2003, focuses on helping commercialize promising research from university labs. Over time at STI, LeVert says she has learned to be more realistic about things. When they initially wrote business plans, they projected company exits in five years. “That was just not the case. Some didn’t exit at all. Those that did took ten years.”
Then, fast forward to someone asked, ‘Have you thought about applying this model to agriculture tech?”
That led to creation of Ag TechInventures in 2014. While she used to think of healthcare therapies as matters of life and death, but really she says, “Life and death is food and water.” The field also has some advantages. “There’s not as much of a regulatory environment,” she points out.
She adds, “I came back to my roots, growing up in a farming town and in IT. We started looking at precision agriculture or digital farming. We’re working on a couple of things now.”
Startup headed for oversubscribed round
One, university spinout, Lindy Biosciences, which is developing novel drug delivery technologies, “Is going to have an oversubscribed round,” LeVert, who is on the company board says. “In this model, we stay a lot closer to these companies,” she adds.
Another, Ingateygen, is developing an allergen free peanut. Hortense Dodo, a native of the Ivory Coast in Africa and an adjunct professor in the biology department of Fayetteville State University, pioneered the technology. Ingateygen means “peanut” in the Ivory Coast language.
The company, based in Elizabeth City, has won a $225,000 small business innovation research grant and a $50,000 small business grant from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. It uses RNA interference technology to stop expression of three proteins that cause the deadly allergic reactions. The company has had promising results in testing the technology with North Carolina peanut farmers.
A third company, RXMaker, which is developing technology from scientific soil research and precision agriculture at North Carolina State University and Iowa State University, is just beginning to fund raise. The company uses high resolution digital soil maps to help farmers decide if they are growing the right things in the right place and applying the right stuff.
Agtech is the next investment frontier
If you look at investment trends, LeVert says, “Agtech is the next frontier. Think about its value to humanity. We feel like we’re going to be able to get some of these Agtech things into the marketplace. It’s not a ten-year exit. We’ll get things in more quickly. You don’t have to have homeruns. You can have singles and doubles.”
Working with potential adopters, growers in the field is imperative, LeVert says. “We were riding on a combine on P.J. Haynie’s farm in Virginia a few weeks ago. It’s great to be able to see what’s happening on a farm and our ability to affect that.”
LeVert recently attended the annual meeting of the Black Growers Council, “Building relationships.” A lot of black growers are in a position to try new tech and AgTechInventures is testing the allergen free peanut with growers in Virginia, Mississippi, NC, and Alabama.”It’s an opportunity for us to get feedback and for them to try new tech immediately,” LeVert says.
LeVert currently chairs the NC IDEA Board and the Foundation Board for the NC School of Science and Mathematics, she is also a member of the following boards: North Carolina Biotechnology Board,
Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, and LCBA in Erie, PA. She frequently talks to
students and entrepreneurial groups.
LeVert, who has always been open and accessible to journalists, notes that her younger sister studied journalism in college and is now doing public relations at Kent State University.
She lost a brother, who died at 46, and that, she says, reminds her that “life is short.” So don’t wait until retirement to do things you want to do. “Work hard, play hard and do them at the same time,” she says.
In addition to golfing, she is part owner of a 37-foot Tartan sailboat in Annapolis, Maryland. “I’ve sailing for a long time. I learned it in college. It looks like a lot of work, but it’s restful. In a deep body of water like Chesapeake Bay, you get the sail set and don’t have to do much for an hour. I really like it.”