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January 20, 2008
Who needs the innovation center? We do
Guest column
Etta Pisato


On Wednesday, the Chapel Hill Town Council will get its first look at UNC's proposed Innovation Center, the first building for Carolina North.

The university and towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro have been working together on Carolina North for several years. I participated in that work by serving on the town-gown Carolina North Leadership Advisory Committee last year.

Of course, citizens of our community have raised concerns as this new development moves forward. What will this mean for adjoining neighborhoods? Will there be more traffic? Will property values go up or down? What will be the impact on our environment?

These good and necessary questions have been addressed in public meetings over the past few years, and the university will undoubtedly continue to address them as planning proceeds.

But let's step back from the details about how many parking spaces will be built and how traffic will be managed to consider why Carolina North, and the Innovation Center in particular, are needed by this community. What exactly will the Innovation Center support? Why do we need it in Chapel Hill?

One way the university serves the state is by developing new products that contribute to our quality of life. These products include artistic innovations - musical compositions, art and literature -- and new technologies -- drugs and devices.

The need for accelerated technology development has taken on new importance for the people of North Carolina in the last decade or so. Our state is 10th in population nationwide and is growing rapidly, and we have moved from an agricultural economy to one based on service and high-tech industries. In fact, the Triangle is one of the top three locations for biotech nationally, along with the Boston Beltway and Silicon Valley. This high-tech economy creates jobs, good jobs, and attracts more people -- lots of really smart and creative people who want to live in this community.

I am one of your neighbors and I need Carolina North to happen. Recently, I founded a company, NextRay Inc., which grew out of my breast cancer imaging research at UNC. We developed a novel way to use X-rays to make medical images at a significantly lower patient dose than current technology allows. Developing and commercializing this tool for use around the world will be especially important for babies, children, teenagers and young adults, and for women undergoing breast cancer screening.

The initial work for this discovery took place in my lab. The work ahead, to develop and build a series of commercial products suitable for FDA approval, can be done faster, better and cheaper by a small company with the involvement of scientists, engineers, accountants, business executives, regulatory experts, lawyers and investors. There simply is not room for these sorts of entrepreneurial ventures on our already crowded campus.

Other faculty members also need this Innovation Center. At the School of Pharmacy, Dhiren Thakker, Kim Brouwer and Gary Pollack have founded a company, Qualyst, that uses a method they invented to identify chemical compounds most likely to become useful drugs. They rent space for it in Raleigh.

Matt Redinbo, a chemistry professor, founded Exigent Pharmaceuticals to develop lifesaving products that will kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. His company will be based in RTP.

Many other faculty members have similar stories. Obviously, faculty inventors can more easily contribute their time and energy to companies they have created while continuing their own Chapel Hill-based teaching, patient care, research and service to the community if those companies are located nearby.

Orange County comprises a community of bright, engaged and socially minded people. I encourage you to think about not only the need for the Innovation Center but also the opportunities such a facility affords us. It will provide practical learning opportunities for UNC students and potential work-study programs for our high school students interested in exploring scientific careers. It will bring high-paying jobs and exciting new products.

We already take pride in our university and the rich intellectual and cultural benefits it offers. The Innovation Center will further enhance the reputation of both UNC and this community as it provides a much-needed facility where faculty and staff can bring their discoveries out of the laboratory to the people who need them.

Etta Pisano is Kenan professor of radiology and biomedical engineering and vice dean for academic affairs at the UNC School of Medicine.

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