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Inclusive innovation

Why is UNC-Chapel Hill poised to make a growing impact through innovation and entrepreneurship? Two leaders of Innovate Carolina talk partnerships, team-driven innovation and new ways the University is expanding innovation for all.

Mireya McKee and Kelly Parsons,
(Photo by Sarah Daniels/ Innovate Carolina)

Where do innovative ideas and impact-focused research come from? At Carolina, from practically anywhere and anyone.

Behind Carolina’s answers-from-all-corners environment is the passion that so many of the University’s people have for working together to solve different types of scientific and social problems. But key questions remain. How can the University make sure that innovation is an open path that continues to expand for all people and groups across campus? What can leaders do to help their teams work in more innovative ways? And how can Carolina build inventive partnerships and collaborations?

Two leaders of Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s department for innovation and entrepreneurship that runs a full-scale innovation hub, share perspective on what’s ahead for innovation at the University. Mireya McKee, director of the Kickstart Venture Services team, and Kelly Parsons, director of technology commercialization, were recently named to their positions. Both see new opportunities for faculty, students and community partners to turn what’s created in Carolina labs and classrooms into companies, products and services that make a tangible difference beyond campus.

How does being part of Innovate Carolina’s predominantly female-led innovation and entrepreneurship team motivate you?

Mireya McKee: I’ve never worked in an organization that has so many inspiring female leaders. And our team also isn’t an exception to the rule at UNC because there are accomplished female leaders across campus. An encouraging sign is that, at UNC and across the region and country, we do see a growing number of people from underrepresented groups in tech transfer fields and innovation-led hubs. Having good role models who can advise and help drive innovation will go a long way to promote women and minorities in innovation and entrepreneurship. Being part of such a diverse team has also motivated me to make a difference with the startups we work with. While there are over 50% of women and minority graduates in STEM fields, less than 20 percent end up being IP-based startup founders. We recently applied and won an award from the Small Business Association’s Growth Accelerator Fund Competition. Our goal with this project is to guide women in STEM from R&D to entrepreneurship.

Kelly Parsons: Innovation and entrepreneurship is an avenue for women to flourish. When I engaged in the field of technology transfer, it became clear that many of the foundational leaders in our industry are women such as Kathy Ku now retired from Stanford University, Lita Nelsen now retired from Massachusetts Institute of Technology – both of whom remain active in the community – as well as Kelly Sexton at the University of Michigan and Robin Rasor at Duke University. And we just recently saw our own Michelle Bolas from Innovate Carolina appointed as the chief innovation officer at UNC. So, in many ways, there has already been a strong presence of women leaders in this industry, particularly on the university side.

How do you instill a culture of innovation within your teams? 

Mireya McKee: I try to empower my team to take the lead on different programs. It takes a little leap of faith at times, but enabling others to take more ownership of a particular project or activity fosters independence and really helps drive innovation. Sometimes we’re stuck doing things the same way because that’s what worked in the past. Plus, team members may do things a little bit differently than what you would do, but it’s valuable to keep an open mind to other ideas and ways of doing things. What people bring to the table can be extremely useful. And then when that’s not the case, I find it useful to reconvene with people to ask, “What did you struggle with?” Listening and providing support make a big difference.

Kelly Parsons: Tech transfer and innovation at the University is fundamentally based upon relationships. UNC’s Office of Technology Commercialization has historically had a culture that empowers our commercialization managers and inventors to work together as a team, going back and forth with ideas, strategies, and thoughts. By fostering this level of communication between our staff and our scientists, we can identify and serve the goals of our faculty and students, maximize the impact of UNC’s incredible research on our community and beyond, and think outside the box regarding potential applications for new inventions. When we allow our teams to partner, nurture both internal and external relationships, and bridge gaps across campus between different disciplines, we create technologies that are better positioned for success and impact.

Why are partnerships valuable?  

Kelly Parsons: For technologies to really have an impact, we have to move them beyond the borders of our institution. Partnerships are critical to how we do that at Carolina. We want to understand all the players and then figure out how to piece them together. But to make partnerships possible, you need to first have a team that understands the research interests and strengths of our faculty, our students and our postdocs. Based on that understanding, our Innovate Carolina commercialization team serves as a bridge to industry partnerships and startup opportunities. The team works daily to build relationships with such partners, including potential licensees, industry collaborators, non-profits and patient foundations, startup management, and venture capitalists, who will support the development and commercialization of our inventions and technologies.

Mireya McKee: Partnerships are important to everyone. From faculty who need help thinking through the commercial potential of their research to students who are interested in startup activities. Innovate Carolina acts as a guiding partner to faculty and students and then helps them build strategic partnerships with other organizations. A big part of our role is to make connections between faculty and students to potential partners in the ecosystem such as service providers, management, experienced advisors, funding agencies, and investors, as well as connections to other programs within UNC that they might not be aware of. The more we work and collaborate with others who are also passionate about these areas, the greater chance we have to build new companies, invent important technologies and develop an innovation-ready workforce.

How do you measure success in innovation?

Kelly Parsons: To truly evaluate how well we’re doing, we have to look at a number of different criteria. On one hand, we certainly have hopes for companies or licenses that hit the market and generate significant revenue that can be reinvested into research and innovation at the University. And, on the other hand, I think it’s as much of a success to see a therapy for a rare disorder, which will never generate significant revenue, save and transform the lives of patients and their families. Success is measured in other targeted ways, too. Let’s say we have a lab that needs a corporate partner, a sponsorship or resources to move a project forward. In that case, getting those resources into that lab and moving that initiative forward is a big win.

Mireya McKee: I agree. The impact of research and education should be measured in many ways. One way is economic returns. And it’s not just economic returns to the University through a license agreement or an equity sale. It’s also how much social and economic impact an innovation has on the communities around us. That means new jobs and local revenue. On the human side, if a technology can cure a rare disease, or increase quality of life, then it’s extremely impactful for the people whose lives it will change.

As you balance responsibilities – both professional and personal – how do you carve out time for your own critical thinking? 

Kelly Parsons: The pandemic has been a challenging time for many of us, but having our schedules and our lives thrown on end allowed us to reset and rethink the way we do things. From a personal perspective, I took up a running habit. And now I find my running time to be a critical outlet for me. It allows me to think through what’s on my plate. It’s a chance to clear my head and consider new ideas. On the professional side, there’s so much inspiration from our inventors. There’s nothing better than sitting down to banter and brainstorm with them because they have amazing ideas and they’re trying to think beyond the status quo. When you form a close relationship with our faculty and you sit down and bounce ideas around, a lot of inspiration for solving problems and deciding on next steps takes shape.

Mireya McKee: Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic is that it’s given us the opportunity to really collaborate with other areas at UNC and a broader ecosystem that I hadn’t connected within the past. Pre-pandemic, I was very focused on our programs and what we were going to deliver. But an unexpected benefit of the pandemic was having to rethink events and activities to make them more impactful. The pandemic forced us to brainstorm and reassess some of our existing programs to figure out how we could do them again and which groups at the University were doing similar programs. So I now feel closer to other UNC programs and services that support IP-based startups. For instance, in the last couple of years we have launched a couple of programs in collaboration with the Graduate School’s Career Well and Innovate Carolina, helping train graduate students and postdocs and giving them the opportunity to work as Venture Catalyst Fellows in a real-life project with a startup company.  We also partnered with Duke University to start an entrepreneurial startup hub in the Triangle.

What are some of the biggest opportunities for Carolina in innovation and entrepreneurship? 

Kelly Parsons: So many more people at Carolina and other universities now embrace the idea of translational research. Researchers increasingly see that going from basic research to translation is actually a continuum. You don’t have to pick one or the other. And, at UNC, we are becoming more thoughtful about bolstering all those different pieces of the research pipeline. We don’t want to send technologies out the door that aren’t ready. So I see us now building programs across campus – whether through the Institute for Convergent Science, UNC Research, the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, the School of Medicine, and Innovate Carolina grants – that help our scientists move research and technologies through the pipeline. By doing so, we’re significantly increasing the odds of our research and inventions making a big impact.

Mireya McKee: The Research Triangle region is now considered one of the top life science and innovation hubs in the world. There are a lot of opportunities, not just in the life science sector, but also from having tech companies like Apple set up operations here as well. We really need to capitalize on those opportunities to promote technology commercialization and successful startups. We now have more avenues to de-risk our technologies, so we don’t have to commercialize them in their earliest stages. The more we can provide early guidance and support, the stronger our technologies and companies will be. Plus, we’re now starting to see the fruits of success from companies who have received many, many years of support from Kickstart and the University as a whole. Through the vision of what we’re doing today, we can expect more successes in the future because we’re putting forward more resources, early-stage funding and mentorship.

Throughout your career at Carolina, you’ve encountered many startups and ventures. Is there a favorite moment or anecdote that stands out? 

Kelly Parsons: A lot of the companies and inventors that I work with inspire me. But one very unexpected avenue that my job has taken me on has been interactions with patient foundations. And sometimes that has been a challenging area of work, but at the same time, it’s a reminder that the things we’re working on aren’t theoretical. They really do have an impact, and there are people out there that are frankly dependent on us doing what we need to do to get these projects over the finish line. So for me it’s really that human interaction with parents who are struggling with how to care for their kids or what options are going to be available for their families. These are clear reminders that we’re not just pushing paper around on theoretical projects. The impact of our work is real and tangible – and it can really change people’s lives.

Mireya McKee: Yes, it’s hard to just pinpoint one particular startup or founder, but what really inspires me is seeing founders over time – starting from when they had an idea and came to us for an award or grant. And then a year later, they have a prototype. Seeing their idea come to reality is so rewarding. But ultimately, I think when they get a response to what they’re trying to develop… it’s just wonderful. When you actually see pictures of a patient, the problems they have and the potential for them to be cured, it gives you hope that those kids will be better off. To us, it’s priceless.

Kelly Parsons: I started at UNC as a postdoc, and at the time, I was really interested in the translation of research. I really loved university culture, but I wasn’t sure where I would fit into that whole process. There were a lot of amazing people who took me under their wings early in my time in Chapel Hill and allowed me to build the career that I have now. And now, I see students who I met with years ago. Like me, they were also trying to figure out where they were headed and what their career options were and what they were going to do with their education. And now I see them running business development for companies, launching startups, or having their own successful careers in tech transfer. It’s incredibly fulfilling.