Monday, March 1, 2021

Secretary Sanders Begins Commerce Service Focusing on Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Inclusion

Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Mar 1, 2021

Machelle Baker Sanders affirmed her oath of office as North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce on Monday during a ceremony at the First Flight Venture Center.  Secretary Sanders’ choice of the Research Triangle Park venue honors the ongoing importance of innovation, entrepreneurship, and inclusion to the state’s economy.

Secretary Sanders assumes her role on the first day of Women’s History Month and on the heels of Black History Month as the first African-American and African-American female to helm North Carolina’s Department of Commerce. After the ceremony, Secretary Sanders toured the RTP technology incubator, including stops at Hanger6, First Flight’s precision prototyping facility and NALA Systems, a female-owned company based at First Flight that is developing reverse osmosis membranes to help expand the availability of fresh water around the globe.

“Innovation and new ideas are the rocket fuel of the North Carolina economy,” said Secretary Sanders. “As a biotechnology executive, I’ve witnessed the significant impact that entrepreneurial innovation has on our state. We must welcome everyone to contribute and then act with deliberate intention to nurture and support those ideas, especially those high-impact companies that solve global issues.”

The First Flight Venture Center (FFVC) is North Carolina’s original, science-based technology incubator, first developed by the Department of Commerce before it was spun out from the agency to become its own stand alone, non-profit corporation.  Today, FFVC is one of the nation's largest, most stable incubators with a proven record of success. During her visit with FFVC President Krista Covey, Secretary Sanders toured Hanger6, an equipment-rich Do It Yourself (DIY) facility that helps entrepreneurs streamline the critical but often costly process of developing a product prototype.

“We are honored to have hosted Secretary Sanders' affirmation ceremony here at First Flight,” said FFVC President Krista Covey.  “We are aligned in our vision to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and inclusivity to all people with a desire to have their scientific ideas commercialized. This is our 30th anniversary! We have worked hard to provide resources and reduce barriers to see over 400 companies to go to market. One way First Flight has supported this mission is with programming specifically geared to supporting minority, women-owned and rural based companies. We have been honored to represent North Carolina as one of 24 SBA Federal and State Technology (FAST) awardees which enable underserved companies to apply for and win non-dilutive Federal Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) grants for new research and innovation. We are excited for our next 30 years of service!”

Secretary Sanders also toured FFVC member company NALA Systems, a female owned cleantech startup led by a dynamic mother-daughter team working to expand membrane materials and products available for desalination and water purification.   This technological breakthrough will make a difference in expanding available freshwater for human population, industrial, and agriculture needs.    CEO Sue Mecham, Ph.D. and her mother Dr. Judy Riffle bring more than 50 years of experience in polymer science to address a major problem facing the world, the growing shortage of fresh water in many locations around the globe.  NALA Systems’ new reverse osmosis membranes offer improved performance, efficiency, and durability of current commercial products.

“We were honored to attend the ceremony in honor of Secretary Sanders’ appointment,” said Dr. Mecham, NALA Systems’ CEO.  “As a women led team we particularly appreciate her spotlight on our work to build a product and business with a positive impact on the world’s water crisis. NALA Systems has been fortunate to find a supportive community in RTP and FFVC. Our work has been supported by early-stage and impact investors, Good Growth Capital (GGC) and Oval Park Capital, North Carolina angel investors from RTP Capital and Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE), and the National Science Foundation SBIR program. We look forward to being a part of Secretary Sanders initiatives in her new role, and supporting business in North Carolina including small innovative businesses, particularly those led by women and minorities.”

Many of the companies with roots at FFVC have received grants over the years from N.C. Commerce’s One North Carolina Small Business Program, a fund that continues to support North Carolina’s emerging tech companies with grants to match federal technology grants.  The Department’s Office of Science, Technology & Innovation administers the fund and recently completed its latest round of grantmaking, awarding $1.5 million to 29 companies.

Secretary Sanders joins the Department of Commerce following her service as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Administration.  Prior to joining Governor Roy Cooper’s cabinet, Secretary Sanders served as vice president of manufacturing and general manager of Biogen’s largest and most advanced manufacturing facility, located in RTP. She has 30 years of pharmaceutical/biotechnology experience and held leadership positions overseeing manufacturing, global quality assurance and quality control functions at Biogen, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and Diosynth-Akzo Nobel.

Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Michael Morgan, administered the oath of office on Monday to Secretary Sanders.  The North Carolina Senate is expected to convene a confirmation hearing for Secretary Sanders in the coming weeks.

For more information about the First Flight Venture Center, NALA Systems, and the Department’s technology focused One North Carolina Small Business Program, visit these websites:


N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Morgan looks on as Secretary Sanders completes formal paperwork during today's ceremony.


Secretary Sanders (right) toured Hanger6, First Flight Venture Center's prototyping facility in Research Triangle Park.


Secretary Sanders learned more about NALA Systems work to develop new reverse osmosis membranes for water desalination.


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