Q&A: Michelle Bolas

Q&A with Michelle Bolas

On innovation rising, key UNC initiatives to watch As we look ahead to 2020, Innovate Carolina caught up with Michelle Bolas, recently named associate vice chancellor for innovation strategy and programs. We wanted to get her insights on exciting ideas and initiatives that people in the UNC-Chapel Hill community should anticipate making a human, social and economic impact during the new year. Judith Cone, vice chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development (IEED), announced Bolas’ appointment in a memo to the Innovate Carolina campus network on Nov. 25. Bolas will serve on Cone’s leadership team and continue to lead IEED’s Office of Innovate Carolina, where she has served as director since 2016. Innovate Carolina is the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship that helps move a greater number of valuable ideas into the world faster for the public good.

Q & A

Why is now an exciting time to be an innovator or entrepreneur at UNC-Chapel Hill?

It’s a remarkable time to work at a university where innovation and entrepreneurship have been elevated as a strategic priority across the University. That kind of focus and commitment begins with our leadership. It is so exciting to have Chancellor Guskiewicz, an innovator whose research on concussions influenced policy changes in the NFL that keep players safer and healthier. To have our leadership believe in moving ideas beyond the University to make an impact, and to understand how hard it is to do that, is a signal to faculty and students. It says: “Your ideas are important, and we support you in making them work.”  It’s also exciting to see a lot of hard work around innovation strategy pay off all across the university. Senior administrators, faculty, students, alumni and others have been laying the foundation for Carolina to emerge as a national leader in innovation for quite some time. Those results at taking shape, and we now see the University listed as a top innovation institution and leader in entrepreneurship education on national and international lists.

How is innovation supported outside of Innovate Carolina?

Vice Chancellor Judith Cone and everyone in IEED have been working diligently for many years building the infrastructure for a vibrant innovation community. Key to that work has been developing a network of partners and talented collaborators across campus. Innovate Carolina has become an active, engaged network of more than 300 people and programs who bring the tools and resources of innovation to anyone who has an idea they want to explore. Because we’re all part of this close-knit and collaborative community, we find new ways to support faculty and students that wouldn’t be possible if we were just trying to do it by ourselves.  

Who are the innovators at Carolina? And how can they get support for their ideas?

When people hear “innovator,” they often associate that immediately with someone who has created a startup company – maybe a company that has attracted large financial investments – and they think “that’s not me.” We want to break through that impression. And although our UNC startup founders are extremely important because of the huge economic and social impact that they make, they’re actually exceptions. Most innovators on campus will never create a company. So, while people tend to focus on the big headlines, a lot of the most rewarding work involves meeting faculty, students and people in the broader community wherever they are and working with them to figure out how to make their ideas work. I’ve personally never met a faculty member or student in my time here who isn’t an innovator and idea maker – Carolina is such a creative environment. Our job isn’t to “make” anyone an innovator. Instead, it’s to help them when the processes, pathways and resources they need to make their ideas work aren’t obvious or accessible. We do that by making connections, developing ideas, forming strategic partnerships and working alongside them. Most of our work is unseen, but when we get to the finish line, the impact is clear.   

If many people across campus don’t think of themselves as innovators or entrepreneurs, can you name some projects to inspire them?

My favorite innovation projects are ones that, at the outset, may seem like the least obvious candidates for making impact. Then, they take off and completely transform peoples’ lives. For example, what an amazing experience it was to work with Mark Katz, a professor in the music department who’s used hip hop as a platform for international diplomacy around the world. You wouldn’t expect hip hop to be something used by the U.S. Department of State to create cultural bridges – and Mark probably didn’t either when he started working on his idea in the Chancellor’s Annual Faculty Innovation Workshop. But Mark worked on his idea and followed it through a development process that involved external partners and exploring a lot of potential pathways that were foreign to the university at the time. We’ve seen similar results working with the Harvey award process and helping to support faculty in the humanities and social sciences develop new ways of bringing their work to external markets. David Ansong , a professor from the School of Social Work has been leading a research team to reform child welfare policies. Now his research has been the catalyst for helping more abused and neglected children find permanent homes with their grandparents and other relatives. Sometimes innovators function as great connectors of people with common passions. I loved working several years ago with Sarah Verbiest, a faculty member at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and then director of the UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health. She produced a TEDx salon on maternal and child health to bring together experts from across the region and country to collaborate and take action. One of the more amazing ideas I’ve seen flourish came from a student. When Patrick Mateer was at Carolina, he worked at local farmers markets and had an interest in food and society. He saw this opportunity to connect people in communities who couldn’t get access to fresh food with small, local farmers who struggled because too many of their crops went to waste. So he started the company Seal the Seasons, which uses a freezing method to make fresh fruit available to people wherever they live – and also provide an economic boost to family-owned farms. The company has now gone national and is making an impact across the country.  

What’s a common trait you see among Carolina innovators?

The common tie is that these are simply passionate people who have a deep love for their work and care about connecting it to positive outcomes in peoples’ lives. They weren’t looking to be the founder of the next Facebook or create the next big tech product. But they are still thinking in terms of maximizing the impact and scale of their work. That is absolutely my favorite thing about Carolina – there are no small doers here. Another commonality is that Carolina innovators tend to be people who are willing to say that that they don’t know all the answers. They’re willing to search for answers and partners outside of their immediate areas of expertise. When you have that spirit, there are so many more possibilities.

What are the most exciting possibilities you see for the campus?

One of the most impactful things we can do to advance this work over the next few years is create a physical hub and home that brings people and resources together. With the 2019 release of the master space plan that calls for innovation spaces, we’re committed to making an innovation hub a reality. I can’t think of anything more important than having a place where our campus and local community can come together to catalyze more opportunities. The Innovate Carolina team is also very excited to partner with the College of Arts and Sciences and Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research to open a convergence science pilot project in the Genome Sciences Building. Renovations are underway, and we anticipate a launch in late spring 2020. This is a really important move for the campus to be able to support faculty, researchers, graduate students and undergrads who are interested in working across domains to solve big challenges. The space will include a renovated collaboratory space available for team project work (don’t worry the convenience store isn’t going away – and we’ll have a great new food and coffee service). We are moving the KickStart Accelerator wet lab back into the building, alongside a pre-commercial wet lab and faculty research space. And we’ll launch programming that brings together entrepreneurship, investors, technology development, translational research, legal and financial mentoring – all to one spot in the heart of campus.

What piece of advice would you give to someone at Carolina who has an idea that they’re passionate about?

Get to know our Innovate Carolina and Technology Commercialization teams. We have a talented group ready and eager to listen, understand your idea and help you find the tools and resources you need to make it work. We are your super connectors to resources across campus and the people you need to know to move your idea forward. Really, I am so honored to be in this role – I have amazing colleagues and know how dedicated we all are to helping people use their ideas to make a positive difference in the world. That’s what we think innovation is all about.