Q&A with Joseph DeSimone

April 18, 2013 By unc kenan-flagler

desimone_high_res.106Joseph DeSimone, who was appointed as director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise last summer, talks about the vision, plans and priorities for the Institute.

What first appealed to you about taking the position of Director of the Kenan Institute?

Frank Hawkins Kenan’s original vision for the Institute talks of fusing entrepreneurship and free enterprise more broadly across campus. That has always been important to me since I came to UNC in 1990. My research group based in the Department of Chemistry became entrepreneurially active quickly, and back then there weren’t very many of us doing that. Our campus is now a hub for university-based entrepreneurship. We’re a leader in this realm, and we can leverage this position. Knowing that Jim Dean had a vision to elevate the Kenan Institute to new heights, the idea of taking Frank’s vision and helping implement that was very appealing to me. We have an opportunity to build on current strengths; refine what we’re doing across campus to foster entrepreneurship among faculty, staff, and students; develop key partnerships in the academic and business communities; and pursue replicable initiatives designed to create lasting economic impact. That’s the most attractive aspect about it.

What excites you most about your new role?

We have completed our strategic planning process– a robust session that started in September and concluded in February. Our weekly Internal Advisory Committee meetings, facilitated by Paul Friga, involved members of the Kenan Institute and other leaders on campus. We also had an external group of about 50 who met three times to provide input on our process. This group included almost every dean on campus in addition to people from off campus–  lawyers, venture capitalists, the president of RTI International, folks from Duke and NC State, and even Governor Perdue. Through this effort we identified our three primary goals. They are bold and challenging, and the prospect of making significant progress in these areas excites me most.

* To facilitate all things entrepreneurship on Carolina’s campus.

* To facilitate inter-institutional connections to fuel translational research.

* To leverage the intellectual capital of our region’s universities to help elevate NC’s economic vitality.

We have a lot of heavy lifting to do and it’s a huge opportunity for us as a research institution. At Carolina we’re really excited about the fact that we’re 9th in the nation in federal funding for research. The top 25 universities get a whopping 35 percent of the federal research budget. We’re at an advantage in this sense, even without an engineering school. In fact, only two schools on that list don’t have engineering: the University of California at San Francisco and Carolina. Engineering is a translational discipline; engineering oftentimes enables better and faster translation into the market. Without engineering, you’re missing a key part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. So we need to fix that, and we do it by forming bridges with other universities that focus more on applied engineering. That way we can really reap the benefits of the strong science that happens on our campuses. This is just an example of something we’re going to be focusing on.

What priorities or initiative areas do you plan to focus on at this point?

First we want to recognize our values of diversity, collaboration, and innovation. The diversity piece is really important because it is a fundamental tenet of innovation – different perspectives coming together play a very important role in new ideas. Connecting people and collaborating by valuing and using diverse perspectives will be critical to generating new and better ideas.

Three organizing words for us are connect, create, and accelerate:

1) connect people and organizations
2) create opportunities and resources
3) accelerate people’s achievements in the sector.

Our mission is to be a partner for innovation, and for innovative entrepreneurship. By underlining partner, we’re emphasizing connections and acceleration. We want to elevate North   Carolina to be a global partner in innovation and entrepreneurship.

What changes have you made since taking the position?

Up to this point, the Kenan Institute has really been a collection of centers. These centers have had different focuses and have been driven as separate units operationally. We are redirecting a lot of our efforts away from centers to focus on being a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship—for finding programs, resources, connections for entrepreneurs—and to being a partner to others. Right now there are a lot of resources on this campus, but they’re not necessarily coordinated, or mapped out, or positioned in the best way to make our university-based entrepreneurs most successful. It’s difficult to navigate in some ways as an entrepreneur, and that can be a deterring factor to pursuing an entrepreneurial path. We want to counter that. We want to make sure we’re doing three things: 1) facilitating all things entrepreneurship on the campus, 2) enabling inter-institutional research translation, and 3) leveraging the intellectual assets of the university and region to achieve strong economic development in the state.

We are also trying to leverage our own assets internally, and although we are moving away from centers, and that is a big cultural shift, I see it as a positive one. We have everyone coming together on a biweekly basis to work as a team, and we have more potential to create the best impact when we bring all of our perspectives and strengths to the table.

Is the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies affected by this change?

The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies is formally housed in the business school. It is an affiliated center with the Institute. Entrepreneurial studies is key to what we’re trying to do. We’ve been talking about ways to simplify our messaging and have better integration. There are two main thrusts within that center:

1) the curricular component – things for credit – that is going to remain in the business school. There’s a whole entrepreneurial offering that’s really important to our MBA students and that’s going to stay within the area of strategy and entrepreneurship in the business school, under the direction of Ted Zoller.

2) the non-curricular component – helping companies get launched and financed and out the gates – that’s going to move over here, again under Ted’s leadership.

Are there specific types of industries or business ventures that the Kenan Institute focuses on?

When you look at the research portfolio of Carolina, we have strengths in a lot of areas— broad and significant strengths. So, we’re interested in building strong ties between the business school and the research engine here because that’s what it takes to be translational, to get things in the marketplace. We are very much focused on:

* life sciences (medical devices, pharmaceutical science, big data, clinical trials)
* energy (creation and storage, biofuels, solar power)
* clean water
* genetics, predictive medicine and well being
* sport entrepreneurship

Globalization is always a hot topic – what plans or ideas do you want to implement to help further advance the Institute internationally?

No one talks about companies today without thinking globally. We will be looking at the best ways to form bridges with other countries and institutions in those countries. We’re interested in the intersection of research and business, and I think we’ll be entrepreneurial in adapting to global opportunities as they emerge. There’s another dimension to this on company formation – multinational companies are collecting a lot of cash overseas but they don’t invest it in the US because of the huge tax hit. There are companies coming out of our university that multinational companies want to invest in with seed capital, but they want the companies to be domiciled overseas now to avoid the 35 percent tax hit that they would get. To me, that’s a terrible trend. It’s one thing to have our technologies go overseas before they come into the US (a prime example being medical devices due to certain prohibitive FDA regulations). It’s a whole different level to have our companies pulled overseas. We want to keep topics like this front and center.

I hear pig waste is another popular topic?

In its history the Kenan Institute has had a strong focus on eastern North Carolina. And taking a step back, North Carolina has the 2nd largest rural population in the U.S., which presents unique challenges. Poverty also exacerbates existing challenges, whatever the setting. A question we ask at the Institute is what can we do given our strengths as a research institution to make a positive impact in Eastern North Carolina?

One of these concepts is “pig power.” Despite being the 9th most populous state, North Carolina has more pigs than it has people! We have 9.5 million people and 11 million hogs— the 2nd largest in hog population after Iowa. And if you look at a heat map of hog locations, we have the equivalent of the city of LA on our coast without a sewage system. The economic and environmental implications of this are really daunting. What is also significant is that we can harness this biomass and power 100,000 homes in NC. Right now hog waste isn’t collected in any sort of system—instead we have hog lagoons. If these could be eliminated, like how a sewage system would work, the waste could be collected and shipped to processing plants that could extract and generate a lot of power. In addition to powering 100,000 homes, we could grow the hog industry. It’s a big idea. We are trying to engage the state to think about this being an infrastructure need, because it is. And it’s an area where I see the Kenan Institute being able to bring together researchers from different areas—agriculture, microbiologists, energy scientists, with policymakers, investors, developers, and others.

What are the most important messages you would like to deliver to alumni about the work of the Kenan Institute?

We’re showing a renewed dedication to Frank Kenan’s vision and aspirations for the Institute. We want to infuse business thinking across our campus. When you look at what’s happening with MOOCs (massive online open courses) and other big trends having a significant impact in higher education, the Kenan Institute is in a privileged place to be situated to help as a convener of people, to bring perspectives together and accelerate progress. We are pursuing creative new ways to do this.

What areas and ways do you need to cultivate financial support from alums and friends of the school?

At the Kenan Institute we are going to partner with other units on campus for fundraising. Entrepreneurship is a topic that permeates the entire campus, and again we want to build bridges between the business school and other units. We want to facilitate the connection of the university and society that entrepreneurship brings by helping other units on campus raise dollars to realize their goals in entrepreneurship. In that way, we’ll be facilitating partnerships, and there will be a philanthropic character to the work.

How can alumni get more involved with the Kenan Institute?
We will soon have a new website that will include more on our activities. We’ll be sponsoring some great lectures especially on international finance topics. I also, and especially, encourage alumni to visit classes in the entrepreneurship minor—it is a unique program that is preparing Carolina’s business leaders of the future. We have visitors all the time – pop in one or two of those classes. Come to some of the venture capital business plan competitions that are currently going on. Those are some of the tangible ways to get involved. And tell us what you think!