On Nov. 11, the Association of Public Land Grant Universities named UNC among their 2018 cohort of Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities. UNC joins more than 60 universities nationally who have received the IEP designation from APLU to date.
UNC contacted APLU with interest in the award and was asked to complete a two-year internal study of the University’s capacity for economic engagement and practical applications of innovative research conducted by faculty and students. Innovate Carolina, a UNC initiative, focused on the creation of innovative social and commercial enterprises.
Michelle Bolas, the director of Innovate Carolina, cites the evaluative self-study as one of the primary reasons UNC began to seek the IEP designation.
“The people here really care about being transformational in their communities and in their regions, and in the world, really," Bolas said. "We’re trying to figure out how all of these elements can work together and what the University needs to do to support that."
Innovate Carolina surveyed both internal and external stakeholders about opportunities for University-driven economic engagement and UNC’s infrastructure for entrepreneurial research.
During this time, Innovate Carolina formed databases which can track the progress of start-ups created by UNC affiliates and the monitor the funding and resources accessed by the creators in order to map the development of resultant business ventures.
“The study is an effort in understanding how and where the University is engaging economically and whether or not those efforts are being coordinated across the University. There is a survey instrument that they use in order to get feedback from stakeholders and they go from there. That’s just the starting point,” said Sheila Martin, vice president of economic development and community engagement at the APLU.
Martin said the assessment focuses on three areas of development: talent and workforce development, innovation and technology development and place development.
As a result of the designation, the University gains access to a network of other universities which are simultaneously evaluating potential areas of business applications of innovative research and tools of best practice research for increasing economic engagement.
The IEP designation is particularly prestigious for UNC because the University is not a public land grant university, and as such does not have federally-funded extensions in other parts of the state. Other N.C. land grant universities — among them N.C. State University — have federally-funded extensions located in communities across the state dedicated to sharing practical applications of research conducted at the university.
Because of the lack of federally-funded infrastructure, any direct community engagement in other parts of the state by UNC is almost exclusively University-facilitated and driven, allowing innovation applications to grow out of seemingly unexpected avenues. At this intersection, having financial and social support from Innovate Carolina becomes crucial in helping these research project transition to forces of economic engagement.
One such UNC research project turned business venture is Phyta, a student-driven effort to explore seaweed-based products as a sustainable alternative to plastics used in personal hygiene products. Through the development of this sustainable technology, Phyta hopes to address larger concerns of lack of economic engagement in coastal N.C. and the effects of climate change on that environment.
Eliza Harrison, one of the student-founders of Phyta, cited the financial and social support from Innovate Carolina and other grant initiatives as an essential part of Phyta’s success as a business venture.
“Especially considering that our team did not have a background business, having an organization like Innovate Carolina, really the entire body of UNC, come behind and us and say, ‘You might not have the skills right now, but we’ll help you find your way into this field because you’re willing to take a risk’ — I think that’s something that many other universities don’t have and really that support is what gave our team the confidence to jump into this venture full-time,” said Harrison.
Echoing a similar sentiment, Bolas highlighted UNC’s strength of interdisciplinary innovation and collaboration.
“We cast a really wide net, and we touch every part of the campus," Bolas said. "At some universities, innovation and entrepreneurship are kind of headquartered in business and engineering schools. I think it’s to Carolina’s advantage that we’re such a collaborative university, and we think and work in interdisciplinary ways. So it only makes sense for this whole effort to be with and for the University."
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