Many to lead in 'Innovate@Carolina' innovation plan

When Chancellor Holden Thorp and economics professor Buck Goldstein began writing a book about innovation, they had no idea what lay in store for them.

Four years later, the release of “Engines of Innovation” roughly coincides with the announcement of “Innovate@Carolina,” a $125 million plan that University officials hope will change the University’s academic culture.

But Thorp won’t single-handedly guide the program. And a more innovative University won’t have an entrepreneurship department or a vice chancellor for innovation.

It will feature smaller initiatives specific to departments and schools, all aimed at making the University more receptive to students pursuing ideas and practical solutions to global problems.

“We’re not talking about changing the disciplinary landscape of the University,” Thorp said.

“What we are talking about is creating an environment where people feel comfortable taking risks and trying to solve new problems.”

This will include programs such as funds for students interested in pursuing ideas and professorships for individuals who have proven themselves innovators, said Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship.

The millions of dollars needed to fund the project will all be raised through private donations.

The implementation of the project will be decentralized, with no single group coordinating the effort. Rather, specific schools and departments will be putting initiatives into place themselves.

But the plan could change direction at any time based on the wishes of Thorp, who put the plan into motion, said John Akin, economics professor and chairman of the faculty committee charged with developing ideas for the plan.

“He’s the chancellor and this is his baby,” he said.

Thorp said “Innovate@ Carolina” marks his first academic initiative as chancellor.

The project kicked off in the fall of last year shortly after Cone was hired.

Thorp and Cone worked together to create several committees charged with outlining the details of the plan.

From there, Cone largely spearheaded the project.

“It’s hard to imagine how it all would have come together if she wasn’t here,” Thorp said.

From there the process centered on the work of three committees — one made up of students, one of faculty and one of individuals from outside the University with backgrounds in entrepreneurship.

The groups met to discuss ideas for the plan and eventually began passing around a draft of what would become the plan’s “Roadmap to Success.”

Committee members also traveled to other universities to research ideas for improving entrepreneurship, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

MIT served as a good model for how the University wants students to pursue solutions to international problems, said Lowry Caudill, chairman of the Innovation Circle, the committee composed of members outside the University community.

“MIT is a great example of the power of the students, if you can unleash them and energize them,” he said. “I think we can do that at Carolina.”

Shruti Shah, chairwoman of the Chancellor’s Student Innovation Team, said the plan used broad language so as not to be limiting.

“I think the broadness of the ideas has to do with the fact that we don’t want to be limited to what’s written on a piece of paper,” she said.

One project already planned is the Key Themes Initiative, which will present a topic of global significance to all departments and schools in an effort to promote conversation campuswide.

The creation of the plan was emblematic of a philosophy of decentralization that will also characterize the University’s approach to funding.

Specific schools and departments will be responsible for raising their own money for implementation of the plan.

Of the total funding, $88.2 million are slated to be endowed, while $36.8 million will come from funds raised specifically for immediate use, as opposed to endowed funds, which are invested.

Cone said the endowed funds will be used for long-term projects since they offer greater stability.

Thorp said more than $11 million has already been raised and that he would be pleased if the fundraising is completed in three years.

Contact the University Editor at udesk@unc.edu.

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