Caleb King, MD, PhD
Director of Development, Institute for Convergent Science
After 16 years in Rwanda, physician and renewable-energy entrepreneur Caleb King, MD, PhD, returns to his alma mater to help lead the UNC Institute for Convergent Science, a partnership of the College of Arts & Sciences, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovate Carolina. King believes ICS will bring people together in a number of ways and will make the ideas of innovators useful for the greater community.
How do you feel you embody the convergent fields and what the Institute for Convergent Science is doing?
From my background, I spent a lot of time working overseas in east central Africa in the fields of health care, engineering and business. I was doing those things all together because there weren’t many resources. There weren’t many different people able to do as many different things. I realized that we live in a very complex world where there are lots of parts that need to fit together to come up with any one solution. You still have to somehow have all these things work together. I think that’s what we find at the University too – we need people who look at things from different perspectives and fit them together because the problems themselves aren’t really related to one field. Problems cross disciplines.
If we can work together, we’re going to be able to attack these problems, which by their nature might occasionally be in one discipline. Generally, though, problems will spill over into multiple disciplines, especially the bigger ones.
Research projects conducted through ICS will promote innovative collaboration. How do you believe ICS will bring people together?
We’re bringing people together in a number of ways. The less obvious way is by providing a service to people who want to start thinking about innovation, developing an idea that they and their colleagues may have. Part of what I think we all need at the University is the collegiality that allows us to find a place to meet together. It’s not just the connections that are needed, but it’s also a support structure and even a paradigm that will be helpful.
My predecessors in ICS have spent a long time thinking about what actually goes into bringing an idea from someone’s head into something that is useful to other people. It’s perhaps best to think of it in terms of three lanes. The first lane is essentially the public one, the types of discussions that one might have with colleagues about papers that are published. The principle of the middle lane, lane two, is the process by which ideas are developed into something which has potential for public benefit. And the third lane is the end product. This could be a number of different entities, but we usually think of it as a company.
What obstacles will ICS face?
You can imagine that if you had a laboratory and you were working in great collegiality with your fellow faculty, grad students and others, that there might come a time when you run into some conflicts of interest. For instance, your graduate students with whom you’ve been working cannot become your employees because you’re also grading, teaching and helping them to get through their studies. We want to protect both faculty and students because we want to be a just institution.
Intellectual property is not necessarily a simple thing either. As I make a discovery in the course of work, I might ask myself, “Was this part of my funded research grant? Was this part of what I was accomplishing fully under the offices of the University? Or was it something that was somewhat outside of the day-to- day?” The University has a legal obligation to make sure that these ideas are developed in such a way that they may one day have an impact on others. It’s a complicated process even for the University.
Why is UNC a place where convergent science thrives?
We have a rather diverse faculty, and we have many schools. Not every University has schools of pharmacy, medicine, public health, dentistry, nursing, humanities, social sciences, and physical and biological sciences. We have this wealth of diversity, and we are also part of the university system, which has even more resources than we do as a single university. We are also relatively large compared to some schools; it does take a certain critical mass to be able to work together to address new ideas and to come up with solutions.
We have an environment around UNC-Chapel Hill – the business and economic ecosystem around us – which is favorable for company development. We have a lot of human resources, not only in our state as a whole, but especially in the Research Triangle region. The location, the economic ecosystem, and our University, with its size and resources and a culture – all those things are necessary, and we see that come together at Carolina.
How will ICS impact our local and global community?
A lot of our thinking has been from the students who are the young people. I believe this young generation really wants to think outside their own benefit and what the community’s benefit might be. We see the University defining itself as a public institution with the purpose to educate, but ultimately to benefit those around us in the North Carolina and beyond. I think that we see an alignment between the goals of the University and the goals of many young people. It’s the intersection between intellectual endeavor and relevance.
That is the goal of ICS: to train people to not just know something about a field, but to know something about a field in such a way that they can run with that knowledge, take it, shape it and use it to make something that’s useful to other people. We want to build an academic structure which facilitates new ideas, but doesn’t just sit on these ideas. We’re focused on moving them forward and turning them into solutions to the many problems we see around us.