Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation with purpose

Carolina’s sixth strategic initiative — Serve to Benefit Society — takes an entrepreneurial approach to solving the most challenging problems here and around the world.

The word “innovation” isn’t in the text of the sixth strategic initiative of Carolina Next, the University’s strategic plan. But innovation is at the heart of how Carolina will “serve to benefit society,” said the initiative’s first captain, Judith Cone, vice chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development.

“We define innovation as the successful implementation of unique and valuable ideas. And so it isn’t that all of us are trying to just come up with ideas for the sake of ideas. We’re trying to solve big, intractable problems in North Carolina and globally,” Cone said.

For an overview of the efforts to update Carolina Next, which Provost Bob Blouin calls Carolina’s “living, breathing, evolving strategic plan,” read Updating Carolina Next, a Q&A with Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford.

Judith Cone portrait

Judith Cone

Likewise, the initiative’s three strategic objectives — engage with communities, provide platforms and grow partnerships — aren’t steps in a process, Cone said. The objectives tell the story of how the work will get done.

“One is a method. The second is the infrastructure, and the third is the partnership,” she said. Much of the work is already happening; what the initiative will do is help make connections and concentrate efforts so the work will have more impact.

Last week, the University announced two key economic development projects — one local and one statewide — that will be part of the initiative. In Chapel Hill, the Carolina Economic Development Strategy will allow the University to leverage its role as the town’s major employer to create more opportunities for startups and growing companies in a downtown innovation district. Carolina will also revitalize certain areas through an “adopt a block” program. Statewide, in the five-year Carolina Across 100 project, the University will collaborate with communities to respond to the opportunities and challenges they face in a post-pandemic world.

These key programs are also part of the Serve to Benefit Society initiative:

  • Pathways to Impact, a comprehensive, integrated learning platform designed specifically for entrepreneurs at Carolina;
  • Pinnacle Hill, a partnership with an investment management firm to advance promising therapeutic research;
  • READDI, a Carolina-led consortium designed to discover and develop drugs for clinical testing in anticipation of future viral pandemics; and
  • Southern Futures, a pan-university effort to cultivate a rising generation of leaders, promote the arts and storytelling of the South and share Carolina’s research and archival resources with the community.

After Cone retires April 1, the two new co-captains leading the initiative will be Michelle Bolas, associate vice chancellor for innovation strategy and programs, and Melissa Carrier, director of the Office of Social Innovation. The Well spoke with Cone and Bolas about how the University will serve to benefit society.

Why is it important for the University to serve to benefit society?

Cone: In one year, this University brought in more than $2 billion to fund its research, teaching and service missions. That is a huge investment in us. Why are people investing in this university? They want something from us. Yes, they want a workforce that’s educated and ready to contribute to society. They want the codification of knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge. But society wants more. They want us to translate that knowledge into practical benefit. That is the essence of innovation: translating ideas into practical benefit for the public good. 

How does the University help faculty make the transition from ideas to practical benefit?

Michelle Bolas

Michelle Bolas

Bolas: I think people in general view a college researcher as someone who studies a problem, not necessarily somebody who’s trying to solve the problem. Finding and implementing solutions in communities often isn’t rewarded through the pathways of tenure and promotion. But how can our faculty who are deeply engaged in the community not have thoughts about ways to solve problems? They need support to take on that next level of engagement and resources that are outside of typical funding streams for individual faculty and department.

What we’re trying to do is build vehicles for faculty to take what they’ve learned through their research, along with those deep relationships within community, and have some tools and resources to start working on solutions. Where possible, we can also bring in additional partners and look at creative funding mechanisms and bring student support in. I feel like we’re well-positioned to do this kind of work.

ConeLet’s declare some of these major issues — like rural health disparities — key targets and find everybody on campus who is concerned about this issue, and then connect with the relevant  businesses, government agencies and the not-for-profits. Let’s put that density of effort and that sense of urgency and concentration on an issue and see if that gives us a chance at greater impact. 

How has the pandemic influenced the focus of the initiative?

Cone: The whole idea behind READDI is that eventually there will be another pandemic and that we can be better prepared. We want to get ahead of the game by testing every known viral drug against the viruses in the world today. Through a global access model we can harness the power and knowledge of our partners to deliver novel therapeutics ready to combat the next pandemic.  

Bolas: There’s a whole set of activity around COVID that is really focused on the big science: the vaccines, the therapeutics, the things that are going to be game changers for getting the virus under control and treated in a medical sense. But you also can see researchers who have shifted to study the long-term impacts on communities pretty much through every lens, whether it’s the impacts on the elderly population in rural counties or the impacts on mental health of teens in schools or the huge racial health disparities that have emerged. And we should care about that and we should support that. We shouldn’t be done caring about COVID when the science is figured out. The impacts go on in communities for generations, and we have a lot of researchers who care about that and are working on that from many angles and for whom potential solutions will emerge. We want to be right there to help them take those solutions and make them real and impactful.

What is an area that the initiative will concentrate on going forward?

Bolas: One of the areas we are coming together to support is the provost’s Rural Initiative. Many members of the sixth initiative are serving as members for the newly formed advisory board and helping to shape an agenda collaboratively. Where we feel like we can move the needle on addressing rural issues for the state, we will be bringing our resources together and doing this as a community of practice. That’s very exciting.

We are also looking at aligning goals and resources to get more leverage out of those resources. It’s also just an acknowledgment that by bringing an engagement and innovation practice together, we can make further strides in meeting the needs of the state with some of these long-entrenched issues that rural communities face, whether it’s broadband, access to food and water, jobs, health care, dental care. It’s a broad range of issues. Given the importance of addressing these issues in North Carolina and beyond, expect to see the initiative bring together a set of recommendations for reimagining the structural, cultural, social and financial systems that enable this work.