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Racing toward innovation

Convergent science is characterized by cross-disciplinary research teams created to tackle big problems and speed the application of new breakthroughs to commercialization. At Carolina, the Institute for Convergent Science is at the forefront of this pioneering framework.

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An environmental engineer collects air samples looking for traces of a toxic chemical outside a Morrisville home. Toxicologists study small creeks and streams in search of those chemicals in the Cape Fear River Basin. A team of chemists and environmental engineers develop a filtration system designed to remove those same chemicals from water.

Separately, these projects represent exciting new findings that offer benefits to their respective fields. Together, their combined research results in the tangible benefit of clean drinking water for over 1.5 million North Carolinians. This is the core philosophy underpinning convergent science, an emerging approach to innovation that seeks solutions through broad, “big-picture” thinking at the intersection of multiple disciplines.

“Research in a university is fundamentally arranged around disciplines, but that’s not how we encounter the world,” says Chris Clemens. “We encounter the world through tough questions. Those problems will not respect the disciplinary boundaries that we drew in the university years and years ago. So convergent science says, Let’s start with a question and not with a discipline.

Clemens, who will become UNC-Chapel Hill’s provost and chief academic officer on Feb. 1, oversees the Institute for Convergent Science, or ICS, created in 2019. Today, ICS focuses on solutions-based research with a path to commercialization that sets convergent science apart.

Convergent science encourages faculty to shift their perspective in their approach to research, Clemens says. While collaboration has always existed in the world of research, it is sometimes hampered by traditional academic silos. Faculty are encouraged to publish results and win more grant funding to build a team that ultimately pursues more results. They are not incentivized to bring practical applications into the world.

“We have to learn how to promote and reward even small kinds of innovation and not to make it hard for faculty,” Clemens says. “We have to make it easy for faculty to do that without losing the basic research threads that may be the bread and butter of their entire lives.”

A simple premise underpins ICS, according to Clemens. As one of the top research universities in the country, the raw materials for innovation are already at Carolina — generated every day with over $1.1 billion in externally funded research. ICS hopes to bring that innovation out of the academic space and put it to work in the world.

“What happens is the innovation has been there all along, but sometimes it gets stalled at the door,” Clemens says. “There are faculty who have been very entrepreneurial and said, ‘Let me go and make a company, and then I’ll put this great invention that’s good for the world into this company,’ but they’re not really trained in the corporate world.”

In 2018, Clemens, then a senior associate dean for research, took a trip with other Carolina administrators to several universities in the Boston area. They visited Northeastern University’s Center for Research Innovation, the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The goal was to see how these other institutions approached innovation.

Wyss Institute, for example, uses a four-lane innovation network, which shepherds an idea from basic research to a fully-realized commercial application. Pairing that approach with other successful concepts, Clemens created a streamlined innovation framework unique to Carolina. He calls it “Ready, Set, Go.”

On your marks

The basic idea is to split the path to innovation into three lanes. The first, the “Ready” lane, creates the opportunity for convergence. It brings together teams and ideas. At this stage, the team, almost always multidisciplinary, is oriented toward basic research and developing an idea or invention.

The “Set” lane is the time for pre-commercial development. It provides the opportunity for the team or team members to break off and work on developing an idea that is much closer to a practical application for the applied marketplace.

“What you do in the ‘Set’ phase of a race is you put yourself in a stance. You get your body oriented toward winning the race,” Clemens says. “You’re not running the race. You’re not just getting ready to run the race. You’re setting yourself to run the race. And we haven’t ever intentionally supported that.”

The “Go” lane is the commercial phase of the project. Teams move into the kickstart accelerator, where they can rent commercial space and start their company on campus before they move off campus.

A key component of the framework is the ability to adapt quickly to a project’s development, particularly within the “Set” phase. One of the lessons Clemens learned on his trip to Harvard and MIT is that innovation is hampered when teams are rooted in place. A project is better served when a team can recognize that they have reached a dead end and retrench to achieve their objective.

“Our space will churn,” Clemens says. “You will get time and money for a project. If the project goes well in the first year, you’ll get your funding for the second year. If it doesn’t, no harm, no foul. Our idea is to fail early or succeed and go on.”

On campus, the “Ready,” “Set,” and “Go” lanes have all been assigned physical spaces within the Genome Sciences Building. The downstairs commons plays host to the “Ready” lane. It’s an open space designed to bring people together and encourage the free flow of ideas. Upstairs, in what Clemens calls the “blue pod,” lab space is made available to projects in the “Set” lane. And projects in the “Go” lane will occupy space in the Kickstart Accelerator just down the hall. This is where commercialization happens. Staff there help to build what companies need in their early phases, and space is available for lease.

Get set, go!

ICS is in the early stages of building its “Ready, Set, Go,” pipeline. The first grants for projects in the “Set” lane will go out this year. One involves a system of water filtration to remove dangerous chemical by-products from drinking water throughout the Cape Fear River Basin. The State of North Carolina just funded an effort to commercialize this. For Jason Surratt, a Carolina atmospheric chemist who helps run the project, complex problems like water filtration epitomize the application of the convergent science framework.

“The collaborative aspect of this project is really important because what we’re doing is bringing together researchers who have already been looking at these compounds in drinking water sources and are doing health or toxicological assessments of these compounds and some air samples as well,” Surratt says. “All these different methods and technologies that we’re applying to this problem will get us a good sense of how bad it really is and what our next steps should be to try to mitigate it.”

But even outside the current three-lane innovation framework, ICS has tackled convergent projects already underway. Within the field of gene therapy, the institute has helped Carolina teams collaborating with NC State and local companies get more research funding to improve manufacturing.

Clemens is confident that ICS will continue to grow. The innovation framework is in place and physical spaces are up and running. He plans on augmenting the current infrastructure with a few more hires.

Financially, the operating model for ICS in the short term will rely on donor funding and some early grants. But over time, Clemens believes the institute will survive on licensing revenue generated by profitable companies spun out from development.

“We really are determined to do this without opening a major new thread requiring a stream of money from the state or from the campus,” he says. “The idea here is not to have to spend huge new sums of money, but rather to raise the money as we go.”

Read more stories on Carolina researchers at Endeavors.UNC.edu