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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Institute for Convergent Science drives breakthroughs for our state

As the new director of the Institute for Convergent Science, Greg Copenhaver is bringing multidisciplinary teams together to address society’s most intractable problems to benefit the citizens of North Carolina and beyond.

Greg Copenhaver sitting in a lab.
Greg Copenhaver in his lab. (Photo by Donn Young/College of Arts & Sciences)

Greg Copenhaver has been named director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for Convergent Science.

Convergent science supports the Discover initiative in the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, with the Institute for Convergent Science providing a new innovation framework based on a convergent approach to problem-solving, developing new inventions and de-risking technologies to ensure the fastest, most successful path to commercialization. By redefining the journey from idea to proof-of-concept to market, ICS helps research teams focus on solving the problems at hand — collectively at one central hub — with the infrastructure, lab space, expertise and funding needed to drive breakthroughs and create exceptional outcomes. The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved the new institute during the board’s meeting in May.

A Tar Heel through and through, Copenhaver has spent his entire professional academic career as a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, beginning in 2001. As director of the ICS, he will assume the title of Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Convergent Science. Copenhaver will remain Associate Dean for Research and Innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences, a position he has held since July 2021. He also shares joint appointments in the College’s department of biology and the Integrative Program for Biological and Genome Sciences.

In his new role as director of ICS, Copenhaver will work to define the activities, mission and vision for the institute’s future with his focus revolving around a central question: how does ICS support research that creates new innovations and translates them into companies, technologies or other modes of impact in the world? He also will focus on creating a hub where all activity becomes visible and interconnected in a single place.

How do you define convergent science?

Traditionally, academic research has been viewed as scholar-centered. The University attracts brilliant scholars from across the globe, and they develop research programs over the course of years to make progress by studying their specific slice of a broad field, often becoming the singularly greatest expert in that area. I think convergent science turns that paradigm on its head. Convergent science seeks to identify pressing problems at some scale, whether they are local, statewide, national or global problems. And then it brings together multi-disciplinary experts or teams who can help address them, figuring out innovation-based paths toward providing solutions. So it starts with the problem rather than a person.

How can ICS help connect promising Carolina research to real-world problems?

This question is really at the heart of our mission, which is to identify real-world problems that are meaningful to the citizens of North Carolina and to people more broadly and to bring teams together who can find and deliver solutions using the ICS innovation framework. We believe we can do this not just in a classic research way but in a way that will contribute significantly to economic development regionally and more broadly.  We want ICS to be a low-friction conduit that will help move important solutions from inside the University out into the community at large.

What is the innovation framework at ICS?

We’re using what we call the “Ready, Set, Go” framework. At the ready stage, researchers come together to form teams, brainstorm and identify problems and possible solutions to formulate research approaches that have an innovation theme at heart. At the Set stage, teams are vetted and provided with both financial and physical resources to assess the viability of their innovative solutions. They’re given some space and money to try out their idea through a “go-hard and fail-early” paradigm. In the Go stage, the projects have undergone a metamorphosis from classic academic research to being restructured into something that’s more compatible with commercialization or some other innovation inflection point.

In addition, there are physical spaces of ICS that align with each phase, and those are all housed in the state-of-the-art Genome Science Building at the heart of UNC’s campus. Alongside these phases, getting teams more comfortable with being conversant in the commercialization world is key. As they move through these phases and begin to work more closely with teams who work on intellectual property, entrepreneurial mentoring and commercialization coaching, ICS helps teams work within the larger framework of the University.

What’s an example of a scientific problem that you’re excited about ICS helping to solve?

A really good example of an emerging area is the opportunity in gene and cell therapy. There are several technologies that have matured across multiple disciplines in ways that make it clear that those kinds of approaches are going to have an enormous impact in addressing diseases. With support from our regional partners, UNC-Chapel Hill and ICS are uniquely positioned physically, regionally and intellectually to accelerate progress on that front. Another example is one that’s actually underway, which is the area of ensuring access to clean, safe water. Two researchers from two different UNC schools, Frank Leibfarth and Orlando Coronell, have developed relevant technologies they’re bringing to bear on the problem of removing most PFAS from drinking water, which is very relevant to the state and citizens of North Carolina. Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of more than 5,000 chemicals that over the course of many years, have made their way into drinking water sources around the world. ICS helped bring these researchers together, giving them space and financial resources. In addition, there was a really important financial contribution from the North Carolina Collaboratory, which is a great partnership between the state and universities to use and disseminate research expertise across the University of North Carolina System for practical use by state and local government.

How does your experience with entrepreneurship shape your vision for ICS?

I think entrepreneurship is sometimes misunderstood. An entrepreneur myself, the common thread I hear over and over again, is “I want to make a difference, and I see entrepreneurship as an avenue to take my skills and actually make a change in the world for the better.” That is very exciting because, many times, people at the University say, “Wow, there’s all this amazing knowledge and resources, but when I walk off campus, have I made a difference for someone else in North Carolina?” I think entrepreneurship provides one way of connecting all that expertise and knowledge that the University has to offer to the wider world.

Who can get involved with convergent science?

Often, when people hear the term convergent science, they think about the traditional hard sciences… chemistry, physics and biology. I want to stress that ICS is a pan-university effort. We define science very broadly and, ultimately, we want to form teams that are drawing on a very wide diversity of our scholarly community.