After serving as the interim leader for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development since April 2021, Michelle Bolas has been named the University’s chief innovation officer and executive director of Innovate Carolina, Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz announced.
Bolas came to Carolina in 2011 and has significantly helped shape the University’s innovation and entrepreneurship efforts through the Innovate Carolina office. For the past 10 years, she has led Carolina’s Innovation Roadmap, a strategic plan that aims to help solve society’s most pressing challenges by increasing the volume and accelerating the pace of solutions stemming from the University. She helped Carolina achieve its first designation as an Innovation and Economic Prosperity Institution by the Association of Public and Land Grand Universities in 2019.
In her new role, she will continue to foster and expand the excellence of Carolina’s programs for technology commercialization, venture creation and startup support while advancing Carolina’s ability to move emerging research to market. In addition, she will lead economic development efforts and partnership growth in the region and across the nation to support innovation efforts.
Prior to her work at Carolina, Michelle was the associate director at the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University, where she worked with former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. and other leaders on the development of the Hunt Library on the Centennial Campus Research Park. A Wisconsin native, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in art history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Innovation remains an important element of the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, and is one of the primary ways that Carolina serves our state, our nation and the world,” Guskiewicz said. “I am delighted that Michelle is at the helm of those efforts. While we are dissolving the vice chancellor title, Michelle will continue to report to me and serve as a key member of my cabinet. She will work closely with all our deans and center directors to ensure that Innovate Carolina becomes part of the fabric of Carolina’s campus.”
The Well spoke with Bolas about her new role.
Why is this role being changed to a chief innovation officer away from a vice chancellor?
It has to do with the way that innovation and entrepreneurship are positioned within the context of higher education. We’re not the only unit that does this, but we are charged with ensuring that as much of the discovery and knowledge generated within the University is translated into practical benefit as possible. To be able to do that really well — to continually align the bigger University strategy with the right mechanisms and resources — you have to be nimble as a unit. And the burden of an administrative vice chancellor’s unit is not well placed on innovation and entrepreneurship.
How do innovation and entrepreneurship fit with the goals of higher education?
On a day-to-day basis, faculty and students come to us because they’ve found a problem that they really want to help solve, and they want to do it in ways that involve multidisciplinary teams, colleagues from other universities and other practices. They want tools to be able to act and think and work creatively, and they want resources to help guide their work.
Universities have to be at the table in partnership with the private sector to cure diseases and solve some of society’s intractable problems. The reason for that is we can play the long game. We can make investments over long periods of time, and we do. We make those investments in patent portfolios, for example, around gene therapy. Long before the market saw the value in gene therapy as a potential pathway for curing diseases, and long before investors and corporate partners were willing to come to the table, UNC was working alongside key researchers to advance this valuable work.
At the same time, we can very quickly generate knowledge-based solutions to problems that are acute and that come up very quickly. One of the inspiring things for me to see during the pandemic was not only the role our major research areas played in the development of vaccines and therapeutics, but also how quickly scientists in other parts of the campus rallied to see how their expertise could be redirected and joined with colleagues to address different aspects of the pandemic.
How do you define innovation?
There is actually a University-recognized definition for innovation here at Carolina. It came about as part of our Innovation Roadmap strategy and has three components. An innovation is novel, valuable and implemented. Innovation isn’t a synonym for creativity or new ideas, and it’s not just something that you think has a value. It has to be proven in the market. And you can define market broadly. Market can be a community where a novel social innovation has value, and that value is articulated by implementation of that social innovation — that new practice, new policy, systems change, etc.
Innovation is not the same as translation, which is one part of that process. But unless that translation is taken all the way through into an executed product, service or deliverable and has an impact, you’re not all the way there. One characteristic of an innovator is the ability and willingness to stick with something all the way into execution.
What is your vision for the future of innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development at Carolina?
I’m very interested in how this work can engage more intentionally with the different vehicles of supporting innovation and entrepreneurship across the state to the benefit of North Carolina. This is an exciting time considering how some of the industries moving into the state tie into UNC expertise, like gene therapy and in the digital space. There’s a lot of activity around North Carolina that we need to be a part of as the state flagship.
The second area: innovation hubs — looking more specifically at how we can apply our expertise in creating and growing ventures in Chapel Hill and beyond. We’re looking at a downtown innovation hub in Chapel Hill and a Chatham Park innovation hub as our two starter opportunities.
Why are partnerships important?
Most universities are expanding their portfolio related to external partnerships beyond sponsored research. While sponsored research remains a key, we recognize that often those engagements also include IP components and that those partners are interested in broader relationships related to advanced workforce training and development or pipeline-to-talent and on and on. So having an expanded view of those partnerships and the role that we can play is important.
I think partnerships also allow us to do a much better job in terms of working with our campus community — faculty in particular — to do internal technology development. They help advance those technologies so that they’re getting to the market in a more developed and more valuable stage. We can get a lot farther along if we have good external looks at some of the opportunities that are coming up through our pipeline and are able to direct in very strategic ways our internal dollars for technology development.
What are some examples of Carolina innovation?
Ronit Freeman is working on a rapid COVID test that is differentiated in the market. Some of that work was made possible by an award that she got from the Institute for Convergent Science out of the College of Arts & Sciences to clear away some bureaucratic costs that she was incurring. Anything we can do to speed a faculty member’s ability to get through a proof-of-concept phase is going to accelerate their work.
Another example, one of my favorites, is with Mark Katz and the music department for his work on Next Level, which uses hip-hop, dance and art as tools to spread international culture exchange. Mark is a gifted entrepreneur who opened new approaches to music curriculum and pedagogy around the practical application of composing and delivering music. UNC’s Institute for Hip-Hop music now is home to a beat-lab, rap-lab and rock-lab that prepare new generations of aspiring musicians for creative careers in the music industry.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would just point out that we are a predominantly female-led team in innovation and entrepreneurship in an industry that historically has skewed very male and very white. And so our commitment to diverse teams and to supporting inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship practices is very personal and very real. You can’t be what you can’t see. To show that we are leading in developing pathways for anyone who is interested in this work is in line with Carolina’s aspirations for the future.