Conceive, develop and test innovative solutions to unmet needs in health care

The Carolina E(I) Lab is a six-month experiential program designed to expose graduate students, professional students and postdocs across UNC to the entire lifecycle of innovating a product with the proper product-market fit. E(I) participants will participate in a ‘hackathon’ style weekend-long events where they will form small teams of 4-8 members to develop innovative solutions to pre-identified unmet challenges in the healthcare space. Over the subsequent six months, the team will work together with faculty mentors, to build the prototypes to their solutions, as well as learn and apply the I-Corps curriculum, including business model canvas and customer discovery processes, to identify suitable product-market fits.

From this iterative process of vetting innovative ideas and redesigning/executing prototypes, the students will gain hands-on experience with developing a viable commercial product as well as the process of entrepreneurship and innovation. At the conclusion of the program, teams will present their progress to a panel of judges. The top teams will receive monetary awards, including a potential grand prize that can be invested in startup companies.

An overarching goal of the Carolina E(I) Lab is to inspire, cultivate and accelerate entrepreneurship and innovation among graduate students, professional students and postdocs. The program is designed to minimize hurdles that prevent the brightest and most motivated from making a tangible impact on our nation’s healthcare system. To allow the creativity of the participants to take over, we will not focus on any existing technologies stemming from research in faculty labs. Instead, the ideas will be formulated directly by the graduate students, professional students, postdocs and faculty participants as part of the program itself. Through research and execution of innovative solutions, participants will gain firsthand experience in cross-disciplinary teamwork, leadership, versatility, idea evolution, product development and entrepreneurship. The program incorporates many of the leading methodologies proven to be highly successful in spawning innovation and developing promising technologies, from hackathons to Lean LaunchPad methodologies, and creates a streamlined process through which participants will: (1) tackle unmet challenges in healthcare, and (2) gain critical experience in not only formulating bold ideas but actually executing those ideas.

Through generous support from the Eshelman Institute of Innovation, VentureWell Foundation and the UNC Research Opportunity Initiatives, we will provide the necessary financial resources (at least $8,000 per team), access to experts, coaching and mentoring to ensure teams will be in the best position to succeed. Our goal is to reduce the barriers to successful innovation to only the imagination and drive of the program participants. The top teams, in addition to monetary prizes, will also be able to compete for additional funding to further advance the developed technologies.

The program is expected to consist of up to 8 teams of 6-10 graduate students, professional students and postdocs per team. Each team must have one person from each of the following disciplines: pharmacy, medicine, business/law, arts and sciences or engineering. To participate, graduate students and postdocs must apply and be accepted into the program, and must have the permission of their thesis advisor and thesis committee or graduate advisor. Each team will include at least one primary faculty advisor from the faculty leadership team.

The Carolina E(I) Lab is a program intended to instill valuable ideas and knowledge in entrepreneurship and innovation among graduate students, professional students and postdocs, with the belief that the skill sets acquired during the program will not only directly benefit their training and productivity while at UNC but also throughout their subsequent careers. Although entrepreneurship is often viewed as independent from (or worse, incompatible with) scientific/research training, there are many important skill sets and lessons from entrepreneurship that can directly synergize with participants’ current research undertakings and maximize the translational potential of their research. We believe this program provides unique and complementary training to the current didactic education and laboratory training most graduate students, professional students and postdocs would receive.

The success of this program hinges heavily on the understanding from and/or participation of the faculty body. For faculty with graduate students and postdocs who wish to participate, we ask your blessing for them to participate as well as the understanding that they may need to work more flexible hours during this program. Note that we strongly try to limit any negative short-term impact on participants’ research productivity by stipulating that they must keep up in the lab and that their participation is directly dependent on approval by both their thesis advisor as well as thesis committee). For faculty who find that the E(I) Lab model resonates with their beliefs and wish to join us and help the teams succeed, we ask you to please contact Barbara Bell and let us know of your interest.


What is E(I) Lab?

The E(I) Lab is a six-month long experiential program that will bring together graduate students, professional students and postdocs from diverse disciplines across UNC to conceive, develop and test innovative solutions to unmet needs in health care.

Why join?

Teams will be given generous financial support to develop the necessary prototypes, be inventors on patents, and be trained in various aspects of entrepreneurship and innovation. The top teams will receive monetary prizes in addition to potential seed investments.

How to participate?

Simply complete the application form, attach a copy of your CV or resume and provide a signed copy of the Adviser Approval Form (only required if you are a graduate student).

Format and timeline

Prior to the Program

Submit a Problem
We are actively soliciting problems that are aligned with the goals of the E(I) Lab program, with the focus broadly related to an aspect of improving health/healthcare. If you know of any problems that you would like to have solved, please submit them here. We especially encourage submission from those who directly interface with patients across the entire spectrum of healthcare, such as nurses, EMTs, physicians, pharmacists, physical therapists, etc., as well as from patients themselves. We will actively research and scout the competitive landscape surrounding the proposed problems before the initial kickoff meeting. Graduate students, professional students, and postdocs who wish to participate must apply and be accepted into the program.

Submit a problem for consideration


Organize and Brainstorm
The E(I) Lab will begin with a kickoff meeting that shares many common elements with a traditional hackathon (see WikipediaMIT Hacking Medicine). Participants are given an overview of the E(I) Lab program as well as an introduction to the Business Model Canvas and Lean LaunchPad/Agile Engineering methodologies. There will also be a presentation of 8-12 problems that have been vetted and deemed appropriate for the program. The participants will then have the opportunity to organize themselves into teams based on individuals’ interests and skill sets, and begin initial brainstorming of potential innovative solutions. This process will also include two 30-minute informational sessions about customer discovery and development of minimum viable products. The, the participants will continue to develop and fine tune their ideas.

Teams will also develop detailed execution plans, including timeline, budget, distribution of tasks and key deliverables surrounding the proposed innovation. Each team will condense the information into an eight-minute presentation. The kickoff will conclude with logistical arrangements for the remainder of the program.

The Next Five Months

Develop Prototypes
Teams will immediately begin to develop their prototypes as well as undertake the customer discovery process to help ensure that the proposed innovations do indeed address needs in the marketplace, without potential hurdles in gaining market entry. It is entirely possible that the proposed innovation does not work or there is no marketplace for the proposed product; each team must learn how to quickly pivot and either re-develop the proposed product, or shift the focus to a different problem. During this eight month period, all participants will meet twice a month on Tuesday evenings. The first meeting of each month consists of a didactic module covering a variety of topics in entrepreneurship and innovation, followed by a “fireside chat” session with experienced entrepreneurs. Teams are encouraged to meet and continuing working afterwards. The second meeting of each month will focus on progress reports, where each team will be required to give a 10-minute update of its progress followed by 10-12 minutes of questions and feedback from faculty and other participants. Our expectation is that before the eight month period is over, each team will have successfully developed a minimum viable product, with the needed IP filing, that is ready to be transitioned to an industry partner or startup company. Some teams may accomplish this in even less time.

Finally, at the last gathering of the program, all teams will make a final presentation to a panel of faculty, physicians, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to determine the winners of the monetary prizes ($3,000 first place, $1,500 second place, $750 third & fourth place). We are currently exploring with potential donors the possibility of a grand prize that will provide non-dilutive seed funding for a startup company based on the winning team’s innovation.

Frequently asked questions

What does E(I) Lab stand for?
The name E(I) Lab describes the process through which we transform innovative ideas through entrepreneurial activities that maximize the impact of bold new ideas on society.  The word “Lab” underscores that the program seeks to gather graduate students, professional students and postdocs together to experiment and push the boundary on what we can do.

How is the E(I) lab program supported?
The E(I) Lab is supported by generous funding from the Eshelman Institute of InnovationVentureWell, and UNC Research Opportunities Initiatives in Pharmacoengineering.

Why was the E(I) Lab program created?
The Carolina E(I) Lab is created with the singular vision that, to develop future leaders who can thrive in the rapidly changing landscape of pharmaceutical and biomedical research and development, we must fuse classical graduate education and research training with experience in innovative, multidisciplinary teamwork and entrepreneurship. Recognizing that there is a relative shortage of resources in entrepreneurship and innovation tailored for graduate students and postdocs (despite over 10,000 of you on the UNC campus!), we created the E(I) Lab program, which is among the very first programs of its kind in the country.

Where can I find examples of past E(I) Lab problem statements?
You can download past problem statements from the links below:

Is the E(I) Lab a course?
No, the E(I) Lab is not an academic offering. There will be no financial requirements (i.e. tuition) to participate.

Who should participate?
Graduate students in their second to third year, professional students and postdocs who have (i) excess capacity and time outside of current academic research, (ii) the ambition to make the world better, (iii) tireless work ethic and drive to make things happen, and (iv) who wish to start gaining experience in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Do I have the right skills to participate?
We firmly believe that a successful team requires the contributions of people from diverse disciplines. More importantly, we believe that everyone can acquire the necessary product development and entrepreneurial skills to help execute an idea. As long as you are driven and committed, we believe you have the right skills to participate.

What is the time commitment?
We understand that within the current graduate education framework, participation in the E(I) Lab program cannot interfere with the progression of your thesis or postdoctoral research. Therefore, we emphasize that your participation should not result in a tangible or substantial slowdown in research.  To make this possible, the reality is that you have to (i) learn how to work more efficiently, and (ii) temporarily sacrifice some other activities outside of school (e.g. Hulu/Netflix, intramurals sports, etc). There should be an explicit understanding between you and your research advisor that any lost time during business hours, for example talking to physicians, would be made up after hours, and that any encroachment into total lab time be limited to no more than a few hours per week.

We explicitly require that the students obtain the appropriate permission(s):

  • Postdoctoral fellows: permission from the research adviser
  • Graduate students: permission from thesis adviser AND thesis committee or, if the committee is not formed yet, the director of graduate students of the department or equivalent
  • Professional students: permission from office of student services

Participation in the program for can be revoked if the participation is negatively affecting the student’s research or academic progress.

What will I get out of participating in the E(I) Lab program?
During the kickoff meeting, you will gain experience in undertaking creative thinking and cross-disciplinary communication in a high pressure, fast pace setting. During the subsequent 6 months of working towards distilling the innovative idea into the minimum viable product, you will gain experience and skills in cross-disciplinary teamwork, multi-tasking, leadership, versatility, idea evolution, product development and entrepreneurship. Specifically, to succeed, you will have to learn how to effectively communicate and work with team members from diverse disciplines, systematically research and vet end-user acceptability of the proposed innovation, define a minimal viable product (i.e. the most important proof-of-concept), quickly pivot when you identify a dead end, multi-task, and innovate against a competitive landscape. We believe these are all integral skill sets that would not only directly impact the quality of your graduate education and research, but also benefit you long after your time at UNC, regardless of whether you end up in industry or academic settings.

Is this a hackathon?
Hackathons were traditionally an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development and hardware development collaborate intensively over a short duration (typically a weekend) on software projects. The spirit of hackathons has since been extended to life sciences, where the events, again typically over a weekend, seek to gather participants from diverse backgrounds to germinate new ideas that could solve health problems worldwide. There are important common elements shared between the conventional hackathon events and the E(I) Lab program. Specifically, we will kick off the E(I) Lab with a weekend-long event where graduate students and postdocs from diverse disciplines will come together to develop innovative ideas to tackle existing challenges in healthcare. However, there are three important differences.

First, although we encourage submission of problems in healthcare to the E(I) Lab in advance, we will not allow pitching of new, unvetted problems at the kickoff weekend. This decision was necessary because we want to ensure that the challenges/problems presented are indeed important and high impact, and more importantly, that the teams are innovating with a thorough understanding of the existing competitive landscape. This requires months of research in advance, which will be undertaken by select fellows of the program and be presented to all participants at the kickoff weekend. Second, unlike hackathon events that conclude with teams giving ‘pitches’ and prize money being handed out, we are raising the bar and challenging the participants to actually proceed with making the proposed innovations a reality. An idea that is not carried out cannot benefit society regardless of how good the idea is. There is also much to be learned from the experience of actually working with people from diverse backgrounds in developing and testing innovative ideas, which for many of you will be precisely what you will be asked to do once you enter industry, especially if you are working in a startup setting. Third, the weekend will not end with the conventional ‘pitch’ to venture capitalists (VCs) that emphasize potential financial return, but rather a pitch that focuses on the uniqueness of the idea and a game plan for how to realize the idea. For all these reasons, we call our program the E(I) Lab rather than the UNC hackathon.

How do we form teams?
Teams will be formed and finalized during the kickoff weekend meeting. You will also have an opportunity to get to know some of the potential program participants in advance during a happy hour gathering that is part of our participant interview process. The names of the selected participants will also be made known in advance and you are encouraged to network via social media in advance of the kickoff meeting.

What types of projects can we work on?
We expect the problems to be presented to the program participants to come from diverse areas, with a unifying theme that the problems relate to improving healthcare, and that the problems can be tackled within the time constraints of the program i.e. 6-8 months. In other words, the nature of the problems will be quite different than those targeted in graduate research (i.e. we will not ask you to cure cancer or AIDS). Due to the timing and nature of the vetting process, at this time we are unable to discuss more about potential projects other than that they will likely involve overcoming some technological hurdle to tackle problems that, if successful, will likely have a tangible impact on improving healthcare outcomes. We absolutely welcome submission of problems, and if you feel very strongly about a problem, we will very much work with you to vet the challenge and determine if it is appropriate for the E(I) Lab program.

What happens to intellectual property (IP)?
Naturally, we expect some teams will develop ideas that require filing for IP protection. We will utilize the exact same process for filing provisional IP applications as technologies developed by faculty. In particular, UNC will file on behalf of the inventors and own the IP, and a portion of the revenue from licensing of the IP will be returned to the inventors. Inventors, whether they are affiliated with UNC at the time or not, will also have the opportunity to negotiate a license with UNC, a common process with faculty launched startup companies. For more information, please see the UNC Copyright Policy.

What resources do participants have to develop their ideas with?
Our goal is to remove all barriers that either prevents the participants from innovating, or prevent the participants from realizing their innovative ideas. The participants will be supported by both generous financial resources (we have a budget of $8,000/team, and more can be made available on a case-by-case basis) to enable the development of prototypes of minimal viable products, facilities such as the UNC Makerspaces (or alternative lab spaces if the need arises), and decades of experience not only from the faculty advisers but also other consultants both inside and outside of UNC. Tell us what is needed to make an idea work, and we will do all we can to align the resources to make it happen.

What happens after the initial kickoff meeting?
As discussed above, we are challenging all the participants to develop and realize their proposed ideas over the subsequent 6 months following the initial kickoff.  In addition to individual team meetings and time spent on developing and vetting the innovation, there will be two meetings on Tuesday evenings each month, generally ~2-3 hours long, with one meeting focusing on education in innovation and entrepreneurship, and the other meeting focusing on progress reports.

In general, we expect the first 2-3 months to heavily emphasize on customer discovery (click here for the Lean Launchpad methodology) and initial development of the prototypes, with subsequent months focusing on further polishing of the minimal viable product prototype, possible ‘field testing’, IP filing, etc.  Each team will proceed at its own pace, with the most advanced teams potentially in a position to transfer their developmental efforts into startup companies.  At the end of the program, each team will make a final presentation to leaders in academia and industry as well as VCs and serial entrepreneurs, and the top teams will be awarded generous monetary awards.


Why should my students participate?
We believe many of the skill sets that the students can gain in this program, including but not limited to (i) effective communication and teamwork with people from diverse disciplines, (ii) the process of systematically researching and vetting end-user acceptability of a product, (iii) learning how to define a minimal viable product (i.e. the most important proof-of-concept), (iv) time management skills and multi-tasking, as well as (v) intellectual property, are all integral skill sets that would not only directly impact the quality of the students’ research but also potentially their career trajectories of after their time at UNC. To maximize the impact of their training while minimizing potential delays in their research process, we strongly encourage participation from graduate students in their 2nd or 3rd year rather than those nearing their thesis defense.

What time commitment will this require of my students?
We strongly emphasize to the participants that their participation in the E(I) Lab should not result in a tangible or substantial slow down in their research productivity in the lab.  Our expectation is that the participation would reflect a temporary sacrifice of personal activities outside of school rather than research activities and that any encroachment into time in lab is limited to no more than a few hours per week.  For this very reason, we explicitly require that the students obtain the appropriate permission(s):

  • Postdoctoral fellows: permission from the research adviser
  • Graduate students: permission from thesis adviser AND thesis committee or, if the committee is not formed yet, the director of graduate students of the department or equivalent
  • Professional students: permission from office of student services

Participation in the program for can be revoked if the participation is negatively affecting the student’s research or academic progress.

Connect with our team

Our E(I) Lab team is ready to help you conceive, test and develop innovative solutions to unmet needs in health care.


Barbara Bell

Senior Operating Officer at the Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy