When universities and the private sector work together, new ideas fuel economic growth.
Joseph DeSimone brings a certain chemistry to the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, where he served as director from 2012 to 2013.
Frank Hawkins Kenan, the late visionary entrepreneur and philanthropist who created the Kenan institute in 1985, advocated for building bridges between the private sector, government and the university. Four Kenan Institutes bear his name: for private enterprise at UNC; for engineering, technology and science at N.C. State; for ethics at Duke; and for the arts at the N.C. School for the Arts. “That’s an amazing amalgam the Kenan family has fostered,” DeSimone said.
“My vision for the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise is to be a partner that drives innovative entrepreneurship, not only on campus but throughout the region and state,” said DeSimone, a world-renowned chemistry scholar, innovator and entrepreneur.
DeSimone also builds bridges – in his work, he links innovative academic research with entrepreneurial practical applications to solve real-world problems. He also serves as a link between institutions – he has a joint appointment as Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of chemistry at UNC and William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at N.C. State University.
His 35-member lab at UNC, the DeSimone Research Group, has launched more than a few businesses, the most successful being Liquidia Technologies, which now employs about 50 people in Research Triangle Park.
DeSimone will continue to run his research lab while leading the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise. He sees the two roles as synergistic.
“I’m a researcher, an entrepreneur,” he said. “Everything I do is to facilitate the success of research and entrepreneurship within and outside of the university. By engaging business people, we can be more effective in competing nationally.”
With 130 patents approved and another 100 pending, DeSimone’s lab has had extraordinary success in producing patents. In 2004, he and his students invented PRINT (Particle Replication in Non-wetting Templates), a technology that creates precisely tailored nanoparticles with specific shapes, sizes, flexibility and chemistry, and around which Liquidia was formed. PRINT is unique in its capacity to mass produce such particles uniformly.
Liquidia, which uses nanotechnology in vaccines, has raised $60 million to date, including a $10 million equity investment by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the first time the foundation has bought into a for-profit biotechnology company.
DeSimone points out that innovation drives the U.S. economy. Historically that innovation came from private companies such as Bell Labs, which developed the first wireless local area network, for example. But increasingly, universities have stepped in to become the nation’s primary sources of innovation. Only eight universities in the country receive more federal research dollars than UNC.
Around the country, multiple universities are collaborating on big ideas to drive entrepreneurship and economic development. “We need to compete not with Raleigh or Durham,” DeSimone said, “but with New York, San Francisco, Mumbai and Beijing.”
Collaboration among universities could improve the funding-to-patent rate, for instance. UNC produces one patent per about $8 million in federal funding. In comparison, MIT kicks out a patent for every $800,000 in federal grants. Because engineering is a core discipline that translates science into products and services, UNC needs N.C. State’s expertise, DeSimone said, and N.C. State needs UNC’s ability to bring in grant funding.
DeSimone’s experience inventing technologies and bringing them to market makes him particularly well-suited to lead the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise’s mission of strengthening the connection between entrepreneurs working to commercialize inventions made in the university setting and business leaders.
“If ideas stay in the laboratory, you don’t help anybody improve their lot in life,” he said. “Translating research into the commercial sector can improve the well-being of society, create jobs and spur economic development.”
UNC professor Joseph DeSimone is the former director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC Kenan-Flagler.