UNC innovation office promotes student, faculty entrepreneurship
University of North Carolina's Office for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development dedicates itself to encouraging students and faculty to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. Judith Cone, who was appointed Vice Chancellor of the office in 2015, says the initiative has, in addition to building the institution's relationship with North Carolina industries, helped students gain the types of skills that could benefit them in the workplace.
“We decided the best thing we can do at a university is imbue the spirit of taking ideas through basic research and seeing how we can get as much value brought to the public from those ideas as possible,” Cone said. “If we can infuse that in the university so we don’t just think about teaching ... but continue the pipeline as far as it could go for practical value, it would be worth doing.”
Helping faculty and students get ideas to the market
Cone is the head of Innovate Carolina, which helps innovators on UNC's system campuses to create pathways for entrepreneurial success. A common challenge for faculty is the lack of time they have to pursue business options, coupled with time constraints result form being a tenured professor.
Faculty spend most of their time pursuing research grants and working on projects — which leaves little time for them to be able to turn their ideas into into practical, marketable applications. The university, said Cone, can help guide faculty toward being able to balance all these tasks. Similarly for students who have academic ideas, but are focused entirely on the school component, the institution can help them find opportunities to share them in marketable ways.
“On the student side, many students come into this university with a desire to make the world a better place, to make a difference, make their lives count. So philosophically, they are aligned to this,” she said.
Cone noted students are usually grouped between "early adopters" of the entrepreneurial mindset, some who are overall disinterested, and those who express interest but aren't sure what the pathway. The office, she notes, is particularly valuable to this last group.
“What we see from employers is they want to hire college graduates with leadership skills, that have implementation skills, communication skills, team building skills,” she said. “All the projects in the entrepreneurial mindset develop those skills.”
Tracking results to see real-world benefits and share strategies to other institutions
Cone said the office also developed a database of startups created at or as a result of UNC work — everything from companies with intellectual property owned by the university to outside entrepreneurs who partnered with the university and companies that were founded by students or professors.
In tracking startups in North Carolina from 1958, Cone and her office has been able to see the economic impact UNC-affiliated startups have had on the state. Thus far, the office has found 475 of these and tracks companies’ funding, revenue, employment and other markers. Cone says the information could be particularly beneficial when school leaders must demonstrate the value of programs needed to encourage entrepreneurial support to policymakers or other funders.
“That combination is a powerful economic lever for the state,” she said. “So we think it’s an economic benefit to encourage that behavior.”
Being located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle between Durham, Raleigh and Asheville, and the prominent universities located in those areas has undoubtedly affected the office’s work, Cone said. However, she hopes the office will have an impact on the counties and regions beyond the triangle, particularly in some of the state’s more impoverished areas — to date, startup companies affiliated with the university are in 16 of the state’s 100 counties. The university’s impact spread beyond its location in the central area of the state, with Cone detailing the work the UNC Institute for Marine Sciences was conducting with Sandbar Oyster Company, an oyster-growing startup that won 2016 grant funding from the Durham-based IDEA Foundation that totaled $250,000.
“I think you see we live in a context of a very motivated and high-level workforce, but we’re living in North Carolina, which has many communities that are completely opposite of that,” she said. “Our mission is to reach beyond the triangle and have an impact in so many counties.”
She believes Boards of Trustees and senior leaders at schools increasingly understand the needs and benefits behind promoting entrepreneurial development, while faculty could sometimes be harder to convince due to the unique ways in which their careers were structured. However, she said students could be easily convinced of the necessity of gaining these skills.
“I think the students of today are very open and desirous of this,” she said. “They grew up in this entrepreneurial culture, so that’s not something you have to work too hard to impress upon them.”