UNC Chief Innovation Officer; Executive Director, Innovate Carolina
Michelle Bolas is Chief Innovation Officer, UNC-Chapel-Hill, and executive director at Innovate Carolina, leading the University’s innovation strategy. Bringing more than 20 year of experience working with education, business and government leaders to develop successful innovation and entrepreneurship programs, she works as a key leader on the Institute for Convergent Science team to help guide the organization’s innovation strategy for maximum economic and human impact.
Why is UNC is a great fit for the Institute for Convergent Science – and what makes ICS unique?
UNC is uniquely positioned to be on the next wave of innovation and best practices because of its deep history in public service. Because of our heavy focus on life sciences and health affairs expertise, we have a lot of people who come to this University or want to collaborate with this University. They’re looking for opportunities to save and change lives, find cures for devastating diseases, and pursue solutions for intractable social problems. Just one individual or approach isn’t going to be enough; you need broad teams of collaborators working across different domains. You need a facilitated environment to be able to take ideas and actually put them into practical solutions, which is what ICS does.
What challenges do you see ICS addressing in the future?
We want to help multidisciplinary teams, including cross-school teams, take on grand challenges. The way that traditional research works, you have investigators who build their scientific portfolio. They’re going after new knowledge and we need that – the world needs for researchers to do what researchers do. Sometimes they arrive at a solution that is practical and that can be taken to the market. When they know they’ve come to that point, we go through a whole process; we patent that invention, we license it to companies, or we begin one if they want to start a company.
We think great progress can be made in identifying problems and helping teams come together to attack those problems right from their early research questions. ICS wants to be a highly facilitated environment for that kind of team formation. We also bring together experts who can help during those early stages to hone our understanding of problems and the best pathways to market solutions.
Who are the collaborators at Carolina and how can they get support for their ideas?
ICS wants to work with faculty from all disciplines. We have many colleagues across campus who interface with industry, strategic partners, and the big social foundations – and who are systems experts themselves. When you think about issues like access to clean water, the technical problem of cleaning a water supply that has been contaminated is just the first step in a challenge. How you deliver a practical solution through the systems that support water access, water purification and water distribution? Answers to those questions require different kinds of knowledge, and individual scientists may not have all the answers. Bringing together the necessary pieces to solve a problem, having one home for critical mentoring, and providing support for our faculty is what ICS can bring.
What do you believe distinguishes ICS from other programs/organizations you have helped develop?
On our own campus, ICS fills the gap between translational research and the formation of a startup company, or the licensing of a technology to an existing corporation. That gap is where the idea and the research is developed – with a lot of different kinds of expertise and support – into a valuable and market-ready solution. This is a gap in our ecosystem; we already have strong programs for business development, licensing support, and IP support for commercialization. On the research side, we also have excellent programs out of the Vice Chancellor for Research Office. In addition, we have a lot of expertise on team science, regulatory agencies, and systems approaches at the University. We need a place for all these programs to come together, which is what ICS does.
How do you believe ICS will impact local and global communities?
Our state of North Carolina is just a microcosm of the global challenges. We have issues in our state related to access to clean water, reducing childhood poverty, ending hunger, etc. As the pandemic has shown, we are as connected globally as at any point on the map and subject to the same public health and very serious disease concerns. Anything that we can bring to our local communities and our state as solutions to these problems will also be solutions that we can take to a very highly connected global marketplace.
Where do you hope to see ICS in the next 10 years?
I believe that ICS will gain a national reputation for how public research universities can generate and move impactful solutions into the market from research-based teams. I want ICS to be known as a pioneer of new innovation practices, policies and culture that encourage multi-disciplinary faculty teams to generate solutions to problems in partnership with outside experts.