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Crafting a road map to innovation

The Chancellor’s Innovation Summit, which drew entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other thought leaders to Carolina to advance innovative solutions for the world's biggest challenges.

The innovative research and work conducted by Carolina faculty and students can sometimes get stuck in a lab and often go unnoticed by the public.

But on October 9, Carolina’s innovation was on full display as researchers, filmmakers and inventors showcased their work on Polk Place in the form of large “pods” that exhibited six of the University’s ongoing projects.

The showcase was part of the 2015 Chancellor’s Innovation Summit, which drew entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other thought leaders to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to help advance innovative solutions for local and global challenges.

“The Chancellor’s innovation Summit is an opportunity to bring people from around the community — some coming from as far as California — to come here, meet some of the people who are really leading some of our innovation activities and then use it as an opportunity to get ideas,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “This is a learning event.”

Focusing on the theme of “Outside In,” the daylong program aimed to engage stakeholders in a broad conversation on how UNC-Chapel Hill can have an impact in the state and around the world.

“The goal of the Innovation Summit is to express to people on the campus and our invited guests how relevant the research and activities at this campus are to North Carolina and to the global community,” said Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship and interim vice chancellor for commercialization and economic development.

The day began with a visit to the pods on Polk Place.

Assembled and curated by students, each of the six pods featured interactive experiences that highlighted various challenges such as environmental protection, preventing the spread of infectious disease and economic dislocation. Each pod, then, showcased a response to those needs with inventive solutions and ways to make those solutions real a reality:

  • Malaria and Pregnancy: Tiny Parasite, Enormous Impact – The Infectious Diseases Evolution and Epidemiology Lab (IDEEL) Team at Carolina addresses the diversity and scope of one of the world’s most persistent parasites and its impact on the world’s poorest populations. IDEEL is studying malaria and pregnancy, relapsing malaria, drug resistant malaria, the diversity of malaria antigens and drivers of malaria transmission—all areas that will help improve the efficiency of vaccines and play a key role in the goal of completely eradicating the parasite.
  • Overburden: Appalachian community battling for their land and livelihood – Professor Chad Stevens, UNC School of Media and Journalism, has spent 10 years in remote Whitesville, West Virginia documenting the community struggle as those for and against mining and the practice of mountaintop removal face each other. Stevens wove himself into the fabric of the community, illuminating the problems and helping forge the way to change and improve lives.
  • Next Level: One World, Many Beats – Professor Mark Katz, Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, and his team travel the world conducting music workshops using hip hop and dance as a universal language between cultures. Next Level works with underserved communities, and since 2013 the group has traveled to Bosnia, Bangladesh, India, Senegal, Serbia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe using hip hop to foster cultural exchange, entrepreneurship and conflict resolution.
  • Listening to Oysters – Professor Bernie Herman, chair of the Department of American Studies and George B. Tindall Professor of Southern Studies, is discovering the economic impact of restoring the historic oyster populations of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He believes that oyster culture and other local foodways possess a powerful means for positive environmental and economic change.
  • Unlocking the Universe – Dr. Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate professor of Physics and Astronomy, has revealed new findings about the existence of black holes that may challenge our understanding of the origins of the Universe. Her research, taking place on UNC-Chapel Hill campus, and that of her colleagues like Dr. Jack Ng, Kenan Professor of Physics, is part of a legacy of Carolina’s directive to explore space.
  • Helping Hands: Not Just a Senior Project – UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus Jeff Powell completed a senior project for his biomedical engineering degree that has developed into a non-profit called The Helping Hands Project, which provides free of charge 3-D printed mechanical hands for children with disabled hands. Powell’s hands can be printed on a standard, at-home 3-D printer and cost around twenty dollars, which makes them not only an innovative solution, but also a cost-effective one.

“It’s very exciting to see the stories of impact we write about come to life in the interactive experiences,” Cone said. “By walking around, talking with others, and engaging with the presenting faculty and student innovators, we hope people will be informed and inspired by the diversity of projects making a difference in the world.”

The pods also served as a platform for innovators to make connections and create relationships with entrepreneurs. For many projects, including Jonathan Julaino’s work with malaria, those kinds of connections are key.

“The exposure that we get through an event like this is important to us in terms of trying to achieve those goals because it raises peoples awareness and interest in what we do,” said Juliano, an assistant professor from the Department of Medicine.

Following meeting with innovators at the pods, the summit attendees visited various sites around Carolina including the School of Government, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the 1789 Lab Venture on Franklin Street to meet more creators face-to-face.

The bus tours served as another opportunity to have conversations with the people leading innovations on campus to learn about more ways that the University is working to find solutions to challenging problems, Cone said.

Throughout the day, Folt said, the group’s primary focus was learning what University processes could be inadvertently restricting innovation, and then crafting a new road map for a future that will help creators’ ideas flourish.

“I think a University like Carolina has innovation in every part of its DNA,” Folt said. “If our university can help them take the idea all the way out —to market place or to actual practice — then we’re not only benefiting those researchers, we’re having a huge impact locally and beyond.”