Like all social institutions research universities are struggling to remain relevant in our rapidly changing world. Having received significant public support, it is time for universities to increase their willingness and ability to take strong leadership in solving serious social problems.  The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the first American public institution of higher learning established in 1795.  Now, two centuries later UNC is transforming itself to become a global model for how and why universities should do much more to promote positive social change (i.e., social innovation.) This renewed focus on new ways to address society’s needs is best exemplified and explained in a new book “Engines of Innovation.” Written by UNC’s progressive chancellor (Dr. Holden Thorp) and UNC’s entrepreneur-in-residence (Buck Goldstein) this book provides important information, insights and inspiration for universities who wish to fulfill their potential.  To truly model socially-relevant innovation, UNC-CH (under Chancellor Thorp’s leadership) recently launched a ground-breaking initiative, known as Innovate@Carolina.  This article summarizes the important book, as well as UNC’s roadmap to innovation.  The authors have also created a BLOG to rev-up university commitment to social innovationClick below to learn more.

At his selection in 2008 as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Holden Thorp called on all Carolina students, faculty, staff and alumni to take on an audacious mission:

“We have so much work ahead of us. Our to-do list is nothing less than the greatest problems of our time: cure diseases, and get those cures to all the people who need them. Find and invent clean energy. Inspire students in our public schools. Feed seven billion people. Describe the world, and replace conflict with understanding.”

Engines of Innovation: The entrepreneurial university in the 21st century By Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein

As part of a panel on the world economic crisis, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “We are going to have to innovate our way out of this thing and our great research universities will have to lead the way.” A week later, Harvard’s world-renowned strategist, Michael Porter, declared that America urgently needs a coherent economic strategy based in large part upon our strengths in innovation, entrepreneurship and higher education.

These comments helped us crystallize a conviction we intuitively understood but had yet to articulate.  First, innovation has to be central to any meaningful response to global crises — economic and otherwise. The bigger the problem, the more significant the innovation needed.  For research universities to realize their full potential, they must attack the world’s biggest problems — such as hunger, the shortage of water, climate change and inequality.

The long-term impact of such innovation on the economy is almost incalculable. Problem-based innovation in research universities can focus resources from a variety of disciplines on the challenges we face and, in so doing, create new knowledge and economic growth.

Second, the nation’s research universities are expected to lead the way as far as innovation is concerned. Porter characterizes U.S. universities as the best in the world, as magnets for global talent, as engines for innovation and commercial development. Federal and state governments have invested billions annually for research and teaching, and private donors have made modern American research universities among the best-endowed institutions in our society.

Institutions that have received so much — and that are generally perceived as one of the crown jewels of American culture — must now step up at a time of crisis and play a central role in addressing critical issues facing the world. …

Our great research universities have almost all of the pieces in place to assume the responsibility that has been placed upon them at this critical time. But there is a missing ingredient: entrepreneurial thinking.  The impact of innovation increases when entrepreneurs are involved. They supply the spark, the passion and the commitment that inspires creative people to come together and achieve extraordinary things.

High-impact innovation requires an entrepreneurial mindset that views big problems as big opportunities. When entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial thinking are injected into the mix, remarkable things happen at our great universities. …

An entrepreneur can just as easily practice in the artistic or social realm as the commercial, using the same basic mindset and tools. Wherever he or she operates, however, it is safe to say that the entrepreneur will be functioning as a “change agent.”

We also believe that the popular understanding of the word “innovation” captures only a small part of its meaning. Curing cancer, sending a rocket to the moon or inventing the microchip is what most likely comes to mind in response to the word. But the reality is much more complex and nuanced. Rather than a big idea that is going to change the world overnight, innovation is more likely a subtle twist in approaching a problem.

Innovation almost always involves change, but it is often the change of a process or way of doing things as opposed to the invention of a better mouse trap. And innovation is almost always driven by somebody (typically an entrepreneur), not an institution or a listserv or a committee.

Entrepreneurship, then, is not a subject or a discipline, but a practice or a way of thinking that can increase the impact of innovation. It is not characterized solely by an “a-ha” moment, but rather a series of actions and decisions that translate a good idea into reality.

We hope our ideas for the future of the university will provoke an important conversation on campuses across the nation and among stakeholders in the future of these institutions.  The opportunities facing American research universities have never been more significant, and the stakes have never been higher. In these times, few things could be more exciting than unlocking the promise of one of America’s greatest institutions.

The Entrepreneurial University By Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein – Inside Higher Education – September 27, 2010

Before we define the entrepreneurial university, let’s agree on what it’s not:

  • First, it is not a trade school designed to train students how to start or run a commercial activity.
  • Second, an entrepreneurial university does not involve the wholesale adoption of methods and values from the commercial world.
  • Third, an entrepreneurial university is not merely an assembly line for the creation of new companies.
  • Finally, entrepreneurial universities are not economic development authorities.

On the other hand, we believe that the entrepreneurial university does embody the following characteristics:

  • It recognizes that liberal arts education has fueled American innovation. The largest differentiating factor between international higher education and the U.S. is the breadth of learning. Universities around the world are now attempting to adopt the U.S. liberal arts model. Innovation that addresses major problems facing the world requires an understanding of the human condition, an appreciation of human relations that brings different viewpoints to the table, and a relentless pursuit of collaboration. The study of the humanities and social sciences is critical to the skills and worldview needed by successful entrepreneurs in all sectors.
  • It thrives on big problems. With vast financial and intellectual resources at its disposal, high expectations from donors and funders, and a generation of students committed to making a difference in the world, the entrepreneurial university is naturally attracted to big, complex societal problems and involves the entire community in seeking solutions. An entrepreneurial mindset views these big problems as opportunities and gravitates to them. Such a problem-based focus has a number of advantages. It energizes students, faculty and alumni around a mission that resonates with their values and their ideas about the nature of the university. It encourages multidisciplinary teams that leverage the unique strengths of the entire institution. It connects the academic community with the world outside because complex problems can’t be confronted without interaction with the environments in which they occur and this connection, we believe, makes the work of the academy better.
  • It values both innovation and execution. With the demise of the great corporate research labs and the practical limitations on the growth of government research institutes, research universities are increasingly being called upon to become primary sources of all kinds of societal innovation. The entrepreneurial university welcomes the challenge.  But innovation without execution has no impact, and academic communities are less comfortable with the day-to-day blocking and tackling required to turn innovation into reality. The culture of an entrepreneurial university embraces and even celebrates great execution and the processes that accompany it. It welcomes objective measurement and benchmarks, it strives for continuous improvement, and it understands that seemingly minor mid-course corrections can result in high-impact innovation. The entrepreneur thrives at the intersection of innovation and execution, and we believe that attention to this space will result in the highest payoff for university communities.

  • It places culture ahead of structure. When an institution commits to solving important societal problems, the magnitude of the task can be used to move beyond prosaic concerns such as the name of the effort or the department in which it is housed. But absent a concerted effort, research universities, like other large institutions, will place organizational priorities and individual recognition ahead of high-impact problem solving. The entrepreneurial university addresses this problem by focusing on culture ahead of structure. Less time is spent on developing new programs, institutes and departments. More time is spent developing an environment that thrives on problem solving, celebrates risk taking and accepts a certain amount of failure as a necessary component of the learning process. A culture that focuses on big problems is impatient — there is so much to do and so little time. The result is a dramatic change in the institutional conversation where bureaucratic impediments are replaced by innovative compromises.
  • It encourages partnerships between academics and entrepreneurs. Partnerships between academics and entrepreneurs can produce remarkable results, often exceeding the most optimistic expectations. In fact, many of our most distinguished research universities were founded by such teams. In our own experience, curriculums developed and taught by such teams have proven far superior to those created by one or the other. Similarly, virtually every major university initiative we reference in our book involves academics and entrepreneurs working together. Such partnerships have an impressive track record. It’s not that academics are incapable of envisioning and executing important enterprises but rather that such enterprises can often have dramatically greater impact when an entrepreneurial mindset is injected into the mix.

Our description of the entrepreneurial university is purposely broad because if our ideas have any merit, they will be interpreted and applied differently by any institution that chooses to embrace them. We have already begun the process on our own campus and have concluded that we are engaged in an iterative exercise — more trial and error than grand plan. We are certain we will know much more in a year or two about the challenges associated with implementing some of the principals we have enunciated. To facilitate the conversation among all who are willing to take the plunge, some of our current and former students have established a website — Please join the dialogue as we continue to explore how an entrepreneurial university can impact the world’s big problems.

Innovation Economics: The Pie Must Get Bigger By Buck Goldstein – The Huffington Post – September 29, 2010

If you work long enough, even in high growth businesses or organizations, the inevitable bump in the road comes along, and sometimes that bump is more like a pot-hole or a ditch. When the pie is getting smaller, no one is happy. This axiom applies equally to companies, institutions, governments and world economies, and the ultimate remedy is almost always the same as well. As painful as it may be, investing in innovation is what will get the pie growing again. …

When faced with a shrinking pie, all leaders are faced with a similar calculus: how to focus inadequate resources (when a pie is shrinking resources are always inadequate) to get the pie growing again. In a commercial setting this may mean closing less productive divisions, product lines and assets while at the same time investing in opportunities that will result in future growth. Institutions go through the same process as they seek to reinvent themselves during tough times. Governments have the most difficult time of it because in some sense every citizen is a shareholder or board member, and decisions are made by a majority vote. Change is never popular, and future investments cannot be completely evaluated until after they have been made, so the natural tendency is to avoid bold initiatives even when they are desperately needed.

The precise measures required to get the pie growing again are always subject to serious debate. Ultimately, the question is what targeted investments will spur the sustainable growth needed to refocus the company, institution or country on opportunity as opposed to fear.

Holden Thorp and I suggest in our new book launching today that research universities can and must be a source of innovation that gets the pie growing again. In Engines of Innovation–The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century, we suggest that with $250 billion in endowment and a group of the most accomplished individuals on the planet, research universities have no choice but to gear up to attack the world’s biggest problems and, in the process, provide a jump start to the process of getting the pie growing again. Our hope is the book will foster a national conversation on maximizing the impact of the work going on in our elite institutions of higher education. To that end we’ve also launched a website, is designed to pick up where the book leaves off. Have a look and let us know what you think.

UNC-CH's Kenan-Flagler Business School

Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twentieth Century – Book Description

In Engines of Innovation, Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein make the case for the pivotal role of research universities as agents of societal change. They argue that universities must use their vast intellectual and financial resources to confront global challenges such as climate change, extreme poverty, childhood diseases, and an impending worldwide shortage of clean water.

Combining their own experiences cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset within one of the nation’s elite public universities with detailed descriptions of the approaches taken by others, Thorp and Goldstein provide not only an urgent call to action but also a practical guide for our nation’s leading institutions to become major players in solving the world’s biggest problems. The result is a provocative and thoughtful beginning to an important conversation among educators, their supporters and trustees, policymakers, and the public at large as to how the American research university can best meet its societal responsibilities.

Editorial Reviews

“Universities have enabled the American dream and are among our nation’s greatest competitive strengths. However, the costs of a university education are unsustainably high, and there is pressure on virtually every traditional source of revenue. Universities must transform themselves, yet they face numerous barriers to change–starting with the tenure system. This book, by one of the new generation of innovative university presidents together with a leading venture capitalist, describes how universities can embark on a whole new path. The book is full of ideas for university leaders, trustees, alumni, philanthropists, and the business community.” — Michael E. Porter, Bishop William Lawrence University Professor, Harvard Business School

“Thorp and Goldstein bring an urgent and timely message: American universities must fundamentally transform in order to assure America’s global competitive leadership in the 21st century. Simply put, if colleges foster an entrepreneurial culture, innovation will flourish, both within our academic institutions, and more broadly throughout the economy. This outstanding book paves the way forward.” – John Denniston, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

“Engines of Innovation inspires, guides, and informs universities on collaboration, structure, sustainability, cost, and practical details of designing and achieving maximum potential for entrepreneurship programs. This fascinating read is an excellent resource for helping universities connect with the world beyond their campuses.” – Deborah D. Hoover, president and CEO of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation

“Packed with ideas about how to transform universities into wellsprings of solutions to global problems.” — David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas

“Thorp and Goldstein have hit the mark. Promoting innovation in higher education is one of the best things we can do for our country’s global competitiveness and economic future, and this book points the way forward.” – Michael R. Bloomberg, mayor of New York City

“It is widely recognized that innovative entrepreneurs play a critical role in the technical progress and economic growth of our society. With the help of this excellent book, colleges and universities can begin to design and more effectively to establish programs in entrepreneurship.” – William J. Baumol, academic director of the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, New York University

Chancellor Holden Thorp reiterated in a speech Thursday the ideas he and University administrators have been outlining for the Innovate@Carolina program.

The lecture, titled “Beyond the Sciences: Why the World’s Problems Need the Whole University,” stressed the entrepreneurial university as a necessary engine in solving the issues of our time.  “The great problems that need to be addressed are not limited to technical challenges,” Thorp said. “Technologists are poorly equipped to solve these issues.” …

The entrepreneurial university is an important part of Thorp’s vision, the chancellor said.  “There are not many institutions with the infrastructure and resources to address the problems out there,” Thorp said. “There is a base of trust and goodwill that exists for us that doesn’t for a lot of entities.”

Thorp cited ways in which the University has shown its innovative spirit including the minor in entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurship-in-residence position.  The talk was given in the hopes of sparking interest in the Innovate@Carolina plan, a $125 million plan aimed at making the University a world leader in innovation. …

After his lecture, Thorp fielded questions from faculty, students and others in the audience.  Some of the questions concerned the issue of privatizing too much of the University’s entrepreneurial efforts instead of embracing the University’s relationship with the general public.  “Most people whose interest was in profit ended up leaving the University,” Thorp said about professors seeking profit from their research. “Chasing revenue is a losing proposition.”

Thorp cited numerous ventures through the Campus Y in which undergraduates have contributed to the entrepreneurial spirit of the University.  He also said students tend to contribute to society the most after graduation.  “The vast majority of economic impact is what students do once they leave the University,” he said.

Despite being a scientist himself, Thorp claimed the solution to many problems facing the world lies with stressing the liberal arts, having a greater understanding of the human condition and partnering with entrepreneurs outside the University.  “If you look at the people who have succeeded as innovators, they were broadly educated,” Thorp said. “The myth of the lone innovator working in the garage or dorm room like Mark Zuckerberg needs to be expelled.”

Many to lead in ‘Innovate@Carolina’ innovation plan By ANDY THOMASON | The Daily Tar Heel – September 30, 2010

When Chancellor Holden Thorp and economics professor Buck Goldstein began writing a book about innovation, they had no idea what lay in store for them.  Four years later, the release of “Engines of Innovation” roughly coincides with the announcement of “Innovate@Carolina,” a $125 million plan that University officials hope will change the University’s academic culture.

But Thorp won’t single-handedly guide the program. And a more innovative University won’t have an entrepreneurship department or a vice chancellor for innovation.  It will feature smaller initiatives specific to departments and schools, all aimed at making the University more receptive to students pursuing ideas and practical solutions to global problems.

“We’re not talking about changing the disciplinary landscape of the University,” Thorp said.  “What we are talking about is creating an environment where people feel comfortable taking risks and trying to solve new problems.”

This will include programs such as funds for students interested in pursuing ideas and professorships for individuals who have proven themselves innovators, said Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship.

The millions of dollars needed to fund the project will all be raised through private donations.  The implementation of the project will be decentralized, with no single group coordinating the effort. Rather, specific schools and departments will be putting initiatives into place themselves.

But the plan could change direction at any time based on the wishes of Thorp, who put the plan into motion, said John Akin, economics professor and chairman of the faculty committee charged with developing ideas for the plan.“  He’s the chancellor and this is his baby,” he said.

Thorp said “Innovate@ Carolina” marks his first academic initiative as chancellor.  The project kicked off in the fall of last year shortly after Cone was hired. …

From there the process centered on the work of three committees — one made up of students, one of faculty and one of individuals from outside the University with backgrounds in entrepreneurship.  The groups met to discuss ideas for the plan and eventually began passing around a draft of what would become the plan’s “Roadmap to Success.” …

Shruti Shah, chairwoman of the Chancellor’s Student Innovation Team, said the plan used broad language so as not to be limiting.  “I think the broadness of the ideas has to do with the fact that we don’t want to be limited to what’s written on a piece of paper,” she said.

One project already planned is the Key Themes Initiative, which will present a topic of global significance to all departments and schools in an effort to promote conversation campuswide.

The creation of the plan was emblematic of a philosophy of decentralization that will also characterize the University’s approach to funding.  Specific schools and departments will be responsible for raising their own money for implementation of the plan.

Of the total funding, $88.2 million are slated to be endowed, while $36.8 million will come from funds raised specifically for immediate use, as opposed to endowed funds, which are invested.  Thorp said more than $11 million has already been raised and that he would be pleased if the fundraising is completed in three years.


The document summarized below, Innovate@Carolina: Important Ideas for a Better World, A Strategic Roadmap to Accelerate Innovation at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Roadmap), is a plan for the allocation of energy and resources at a strategic level. As this effort moves forward, it is anticipated that many detailed plans will grow out of the broad strategy. This Roadmap is a collective vision for how Carolina can apply new ideas to dramatically increase our contributions to the well-being of the global community.

We will build a culture of innovation that permeates every corner of campus, from the chemist in Caudill labs to the poet in Greenlaw Hall. We will redouble our efforts to leverage scientific and medical research for society’s good, and we will advance work in the humanities that leads to greater understanding of the challenges the world faces.

Vision: With a special focus on urgent challenges, innovators and innovations launched at Carolina consistently translate important ideas for a better world.

Mission: Continually strengthen an intentional culture of innovation at Carolina guided by entrepreneurial thinking; fueled by talented people, collaborations, and resources; and accelerated by expanded capacity and a sense of urgency.

The following characteristics define how UNC-CH will become an entrepreneurial university.

Integrative – This work builds on a commitment to education and inquiry that rewards cooperation, inventiveness, entrepreneurial spirit, scholarly and creative excellence, and dedication to improving the human condition while sustaining the natural world.

  • Campuswide – Innovation is a campuswide value and pursuit. Bold ideas worth pursuing come from all areas of the campus.
  • Global – Pressing needs are not limited by geography. In an interconnected world, our University is by necessity and reality a part of the global community.
  • Urgent – The grand challenges facing the state, nation, and world today will not wait and demand that we address our work with a sense of urgency.
  • Diverse and Collaborative – Innovation depends on a diversity of points of view, especially in the development of solutions to complex issues. Broader participation by underrepresented groups in our educational and research endeavors can only enhance our innovations. We will promote partnerships among academic disciplines and between the University and external partners to ensure the best outcomes.
  • Experimental – Innovations evolve from experimentation. We will promote an iterative process of doing-learning-changing. This means we will embrace taking calculated risks and accept the inevitable failures as a necessary ingredient of the innovation process.
  • Learning from Others – We will learn from the experiences of others and adopt successful programs and practices, modified for our University, whenever feasible.
  • Incremental and Radical Leaps – We will stimulate both incremental and transformative ideas.
  • Rigorous – Rigorous measures of success are a standard part of the innovation process. These measures will go beyond our own internal standards and include feedback from a wide range of sources.
  • Efficient – We will leverage resources by maximizing existing structures and assets of the University whenever possible and promote effective processes with minimal overhead and staffing.

This Roadmap will move UNC-Chapel Hill (a.k.a., Carolina) toward the following outcomes:

  • Ideas and discoveries are leveraged across the University and efficiently disseminated.
  • Carolina classrooms, labs, and studios are incubators of discovery that yield innovations that serve the public good.
  • Carolina attracts the most talented and innovative faculty and students in the world because of its dedication to discovery, experimentation, and innovation.
  • Carolina is recognized globally as one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial universities in the world.
  • The world is significantly improved because of Carolina innovations and its entrepreneurially minded faculty, students, and staff.

The recommendations and goals for the University are to:

Recommendation 1: Prepare faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, staff, and the broader Carolina community with the knowledge, skills, and connections necessary to translate new ideas into innovations.

  • Goal 1.1 Ensure that faculty, students, staff, and the broader Carolina community understand the University’s commitment to innovation and the resources available to help them reach their related goals.
  • Goal 1.2 Build capacity for innovation.

Recommendation 2: Collaborate with diverse groups on campus and beyond to explore issues, options, and creative approaches that may lead to innovations.

  • Goal 2.1 Enhance robust interdisciplinary collaboration among basic and social scientists, humanistic scholars, and those in hybrid disciplines such as bioengineering and applied sciences to address the great challenges of our times.
  • Goal 2.2 Collaborate and coordinate around key themes of local, national, and global significance to mobilize the campus toward new understanding of issues and solutions.
  • Goal 2.3 Improve industry collaborations and increase industry funding.
  • Goal 2.4 Extend collaborations with state and regional partners to help North Carolina further develop into a leading competitive, global, entrepreneurial, knowledge and innovation economy.
  • Goal 2.5 Strengthen collaborations with Carolina’s strategic international partners.

Recommendation 3: Translate important new ideas more expediently and at an increased volume into innovations that improve society.

  • Goal 3.1 Support faculty, students, and staff as they develop understanding of issues and contribute solutions to complex social and environmental problems through social entrepreneurship.
  • Goal 3.2 Effectively organize and manage the University’s commercialization services to maximize the quality and volume of potentially important innovations for society. Return revenue from these innovations to the University to support this work when possible.
  • Goal 3.3 Measure the impact of innovations and innovators launched at Carolina.

Recommendation 4: Align people, incentives, resources, and processes to strengthen an intentional culture of innovation at Carolina.

  • Goal 4.1 Encourage leadership across campus to support and promote innovation in their schools, departments, institutes, and offices.
  • Goal 4.2 Recruit, retain, and reward faculty, students, and staff who show promise, aptitude, and/or achievement in innovation.
  • Goal 4.3 Align the University’s internal methods and processes to foster innovation, especially in working across schools.
  • Goal 4.4 Provide the necessary funds to support nascent and promising innovations on campus.

Recommendation 5: Catalyze innovation at Carolina by facilitating the work of faculty, staff, and students as they put important ideas to use for a better world.

  • Goal 5.1 Leverage the talents of leaders across campus to prepare, collaborate, translate, and align resources and processes to strengthen the culture of innovation at Carolina.
  • Goal 5.2 Create the Chancellor’s Catalyze Group to facilitate the implementation of this Roadmap.

We have so much work ahead of us. Our to-do list is nothing less than the greatest problems of our time: cure diseases, and get those cures to all the people who need them. Find and invent clean energy. Inspire students in our public schools. Feed seven billion people. Describe the world, and replace conflict with understanding. — Chancellor Holden Thorp