Where Are the New Innovators? Look No Further Than North Carolina’s Piedmont
Like the iconic innovator Steve Jobs, the movers and shakers of Wake Forest Innovations, the new commercialization engine of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, are people who refuse to live with only the results of others’ ideas. They operate in what their president calls a “culture of courage.”
The people of Innovation Quarter, formerly known as the Piedmont Triad Research Park, believe they can change the world. And the patents and partnerships emerging through Wake Forest Baptist’s commercialization enterprise are already remaking the world of Winston-Salem and far beyond.
Wake Forest Innovations was established to commercialize ideas, inventions and research assets that emerge from the Medical Center through partnerships with industry. In July 2012, Eric Tomlinson, DSc, PhD, became president of Innovation Quarter and Wake Forest Baptist’s first chief innovation officer.
He knows firsthand that discovery and commercialization are indeed based on encouraging thinkers and supporting their research with institutional dollars and commitments from visionary philanthropists.
“Universities and academic medical centers are fast becoming the new innovators of our time,” Tomlinson says. “The big discoveries used to be made by large corporations with an appetite for risk or by a couple of crazy folks in a garage, but now the processes are so daunting, costly and so highly regulated, innovation has to have the support of an institution.”
Innovation Quarter as a ‘Skunkworks’
“Intrapreneurship has its own momentum,” Tomlinson continues. “3M, Lockheed and others have had their ‘skunkworks’ (independent, unconventional research-and-development teams), and Wake Forest Innovations is a kind of skunkworks. We’re surrounded by institutional behaviors, but we need to move at a different speed of action and implementation.”
According to John D. McConnell, MD, chief executive officer of Wake Forest Baptist, Wake Forest Innovations exists to increase the pace of innovation and hasten its impact on patient health.
“It is designed solely to bring new resources to our faculty and other innovators on campus, and to decrease the cycle time for those discoveries to be delivered into a successful product that will positively impact a patient,” McConnell says.
Strengthening innovation will help improve the health and lives of everyone, McConnell adds. The effort brings with it a certain atmosphere.
“An innovative culture doesn’t have to involve having a basketball hoop in every office,” Tomlinson says, “but it does have to be a culture where it’s OK to fail, a culture of courage that is supportive of the notion that good people need breathing room to develop good ideas.”
He adds that such “breathing room” is what comes through the seed monies contributed by individuals who know that ideas need a lot of support to attract funding from federal sources or venture capitalists.
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