Nick Kirby, Co-Founder and CEO, Encapsio
From mowing lawns and washing cars in high school, to working in his father’s shop learning how a small business operates, Nick Kirby’s always been involved in entrepreneurship. Those early foundations ingrained in Nick a strong drive towards entrepreneurship that he brought to Duke as an MBA in the Fuqua School of Business and participant in the New Ventures courses offered by Fuqua. “I came into business school knowing that I wanted to start a company and had the mindset that I would take two years to get something off the ground,” Nick said.
- BS, Chemical Engineering, University of Virginia – 2012
- Master of Business Administration, Duke University – The Fuqua School of Business, 2017
Despite having a highly technical background in Chemical Engineering, Nick realized he “wanted to get closer to the broader, more business-focused side of innovation” and learn how to leverage business as a vehicle to take new technologies into the world and solve problems.
Nick originally elected to come to Fuqua because he found that Duke offered him the “combination of a top-notch business school and world-class research institution.” “Across Duke, there is so much incredible research going on, and I felt like it was a great place to access a world-class network and business school education, while finding new technologies with untapped commercial potential,” Nick said. “I had a few ideas coming into school around companies that could be started. But if those ideas did not get traction, my plan was to meet researchers, professors, students, and find people working on interesting projects. I hoped that researchers could use someone to help develop strategy and business opportunities.”
At Duke, Nick and, Wes Day, a fellow MBA student, were connected the summer prior to starting Fuqua’s MBA program and decided to meet with researchers across the university. After meeting with 40+ post-docs, PhDs, and graduate students that had filed patents in Nick and Wes’s interest areas, the two met Wyatt Shields, a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. Originally intended to isolate circulating tumor cells, Wyatt’s technology formed the foundation for Encapsio, which would become a startup aimed at protecting and controlling the release of active ingredients in skincare products through the use of microscopic silicone spheres. By October of their first year, the team hit the ground running, reaching out to anyone who would talk to them in the industry and presenting the core thesis behind Encapsio.
As the bridge between the technical and business aspects of the company, Nick gravitated towards the CEO position, while Wes and Wyatt addressed much of the finance, strategy, and marketing aspects, as well as, the scientific backbone of the technology. However, given the early-stages of the technology, Nick noted how “In the early days we needed to run a lot of studies, so I spent a lot of time in the lab running experiments with Wyatt. Something I didn’t picture myself doing in business school was working in a wet lab, but in a startup, you do whatever it takes to keep things moving forward.”
“A really helpful aspect of being a Fuqua student and participant in the New Ventures courses was being plugged directly into the local venture capital and angel investor scene. Being able to sit down and talk to a VC investor for an hour about our thoughts, technology, and trajectory allowed us to get a better sense of what VCs needed to see to get excited about an investment” Nick said. Speaking with VCs is a greatly beneficial experience in Nick’s eyes as it allows entrepreneurs to gain insight into how investors think about scaling a business; and they can often identify risks in the business model that the entrepreneur may not see.
When asked about how he benefited directly from the Fuqua and broader Duke network, Nick mentioned how “a huge strength of Fuqua and Duke as a whole is the willingness of the vast alumni network to connect. This gave us the opportunity to meet people in industry and have conversations that helped de-risk and test Encapsio’s core value proposition.”
Nick’s definition of the entrepreneurial mindset was largely guided by his experience in Fuqua’s New Ventures courses. “New Ventures does a great job of asking questions to challenge your current assumptions and ensure you address the key questions that could kill your business first. By determining the heart of your business, the problems it solves, and developing a strategy to de-risk your company, you can greatly increase your odds of success.” Beyond developing that strategy, Nick also believes that learning where to focus is important to young entrepreneurs, because determining “where you’ll place your bet with limited time and resources is one of the most important decisions you can make.”
Although Nick’s current job now lies on the other side of the table, handling partnerships, licensing, and investments, he believes having been an entrepreneur has gifted him with a unique perspective when evaluating the market potential of new technologies, startups, and internal R&D efforts. “Even in large companies, understanding how hard it is to do anything new and the importance of developing a strategic roadmap pays dividends in making sure the enterprise is investing in the highest potential opportunities.”
Nick’s advice for current students or people interested in entrepreneurship emphasized the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities that being a part of Fuqua gives you.
“For other students interested in entrepreneurship, you have a runway where you can fail and try new things. You will learn so much from that experience with zero risk. Too many people worry that they will miss out on networking nights and the recruiting process, but the unique experience of starting a company and articulating the value it provided will position them just as well for future employment.”
When asked if he had anything else to share, Nick said: “I’d like to thank the countless number of people that took time to advise our startup; we learned so much and had a great experience.”