Trustees committee looks to grow commercialization at UNC-Chapel Hill
A committee of UNC-Chapel Hill leaders wants to raise the profile of the university as a job creator through its research discoveries.
That’s according to a memo to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ Innovation and Impact Committee. Created last year, the committee’s goal is to help further the mission of turning faculty and other academics’ research-generated discoveries and ideas into new businesses.
Committee Co-chair Phillip Clay, who authored the memo, said the group will discuss next steps at a meeting Wednesday. He said part of the concern is that the university is top-ranked as a research institution, but it falls behind its peers in commercialization.
“Universities that have that level of research output tend to have more commercialization of … products of that research than Chapel Hill has,” he said.
According to National Science Foundation data, UNC-Chapel Hill was No. 11 out of 653 institutions in total research and development expenditures in 2012. Life sciences research made up about 74 percent of the school’s research spending.
But according to Association of University Technology Managers, the school ranked No. 66 in licensing income among U.S. research universities that responded to its technology transfer fiscal year 2012 survey. And based on the association’s survey data, it ranked No. 47 among U.S. research universities for U.S. patents issued.
Commercialization is an area “where we are very focused on improving,” said Don Hobart, UNC-Chapel Hill’s associate vice chancellor for research. “One of the challenges is to drive more entrepreneurial activity, more start-ups, more technology development in an environment where we don’t have an engineering program.”
According to Clay’s memo, the school “benefited greatly” from former Chancellor Holden Thorp’s 2010 “Innovation Roadmap” that laid out goals for growing the school’s research-to-spin-out pipeline.
Hobart said it’s also a priority for Chancellor Carol Folt.
“It’s an area where we put a lot of attention and the chancellor wants to put even more attention on that are going forward,” he said
He described initiatives to help build technology transfer at the school including making it more cost effective for small businesses with federal research grants to do work there.
The committee memo also said there is an “evolving” set of venues on campus as well as in Chapel Hill – like the downtown Chapel Hill accelerator Launch Chapel Hill -- where entrepreneurs can gather and get support.
And it noted the creation of a new Department of Applied Physical Sciences in 2013 after about two years of planning. The department is the home of the materials science graduate program and now manages activities previously associated with the Institute of Advanced Materials, Nanoscience and Technology.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to build a Department of Applied Physical Sciences at the level and scope that we want it to be,” Hobart said.
And the memo mentions the school’s Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, an academic department Launched in 2003 and co-located at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. Undergraduates in the applied science program can get a concentration in the field, according to the department website.
The memo says there’s a lack of information among faculty about the resources available to move from research to commercialization.
It also says the university’s research portfolio is weighted toward basic science and has a “substantial showing” in areas like behavioral and social sciences “where the commercialization potential is low.”
“I think the memo was clear that one of the goals was to figure out what the next steps are,” Clay said. “And so the memo summarizes what it is we learned, what it is we still need to learn, but it doesn’t come to a conclusion about what should be done.”
The committee is expected to meet Wednesday at The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill. The full board is expected to meet Thursday.