May 27, 2024

NC State Celebrates Innovation, Entrepreneurship | Office of Research and Innovation – North Carolina State University

Craig Yencho and Ken Pecota were both honored with the Innovator of the Year award, and Marshall Brain received the Entrepreneur of the Year award.
While the pandemic may have prevented in-person gatherings for a couple of years, innovation had no choice to not only continue but to blossom. That was no different at NC State — where, as just one example, our Nonwovens Institute partnered with UNC Health and others to manufacture N95 masks for frontline workers. 
For over 30 years, NC State University has held an annual Celebration of Innovation, awarding an innovator of the year and an entrepreneur of the year. On the evening of Oct. 12, for the first time since 2019, Chancellor Randy Woodson hosted the event in person again, at his residence on Centennial Campus, The Point.
“It’s great to get back together and to celebrate innovation and the innovators at NC State,” Woodson said at the event. “Thank you for your entrepreneurial spirit and everything you do to continue to build the economy of the country and the region through your science.”
In his opening remarks, Woodson recognized the numerous National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellows who were in attendance, marking it as a sign of the breadth of talent NC State has. The university is currently home to 24 NAI Fellows.
“That’s something I’m very proud of,” Woodson said. “It speaks to our ‘Think and Do’ mindset at NC State.”
And so, on a campus teeming with as many bright minds as ours, it’s no small feat to be named innovator or entrepreneur of the year. 
This year, Woodson named both Craig Yencho and Ken Pecota as winners of the 2021-2022 Innovator of the Year award and named Marshall Brain as the winner of the 2021-2022 John S. Risley Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Woodson also recognized the 2021 and 2022 winning projects of the Chancellor’s Innovation Fund, as well as the 38 research-based startups that were launched during that same time.
Keep reading to learn more about those who were recognized.
Craig Yencho and Ken Pecota, researchers in the Department of Horticultural Science, were both recognized with the Innovator of the Year award for their work to develop a cultivar that now accounts for nearly 90% of sweet potato production in North Carolina. Released in 2005, Yencho and Pecota’s “Covington” sweet potato makes up 20% of the total acreage of sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. and has become a lucrative European export. Since its release, the Covington variety has earned North Carolina sweet potato farmers over $3.5 billion in revenue — and has been used in a variety of innovative products, including a line of vodka.
Yencho and Pecota’s collaboration in the Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Program has also led to the launch of multiple lines of ornamental sweet potatoes, 27 of which have been licensed and sold globally, generating an estimated $20 million in retail sales. What’s more, Yencho and Pecota have worked through the years to help spread their knowledge internationally to places where it’s needed most, including parts of Africa where children struggle with Vitamin A deficiency.
Marshall Brain, a lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was recognized with the John S. Risley Entrepreneur of the Year award for his work to help engineering students develop an entrepreneurial mindset and learn about launching new ventures. As director of the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program, Brain mentors hundreds of students each year, many of whom go on to enter — and win — NC State’s eGames, the university’s annual startup competition. In fact, at last year’s eGames, almost half of the winning teams were made up of Brain’s former students.
Brain is also a well-known entrepreneur in his own right, as the founder of, which was acquired for $250 million in 2007 by Discovery Communications. Started as a hobby in 1998, at one point became one of the top-ten most-visited websites in the world. For several years after the website’s acquisition, Brain continued to serve as the face of HowStuffWorks — and even became the host of his own National Geographic television show, “Factory Floor With Marshall Brain.” Brain has also made TV appearances on CNN, MSNBC, “Good Morning America,” “Modern Marvels” and other programs.
The Celebration of Innovation also recognized NC State’s most recently inducted NAI Fellow, as well as recent winners of the Chancellor’s Innovation Fund and recently launched NC State research-based startup companies.
Fred Kish, the MC Dean Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the Nanofabrication Facility, was inducted as an NAI Fellow in 2021. Kish is also the most recent prior winner of the John S. Risley Entrepreneur of the Year award. 
Six projects received support from the CIF in 2021, and another six received support earlier this year.
A total of 38 startups were launched based on NC State research during fiscal years 2021 and 2022 — 20 in 2021 and 18 in 2022.
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