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UNC Innovation Chief Addresses Business Leaders at UALR

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Judith Cone, chief innovation officer for the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill, told leaders of central Arkansas’ business community Monday evening that innovation is not a synonym for creativity, but a process.

“Innovation means successfully implementing unique ideas,” she said. “It’s an engine, something used to affect a purpose.”

Cone was hired by UNC five years ago from the Kauffman Foundation to re-energize the innovation culture in Chapel Hill. Her presentation, “Being an Engine of Innovation,” was delivered Monday at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Bailey Alumni Center before an invitation-only group of local innovation leaders organized by UALR TechLaunch director Jeff Stinson.

Included among the roughly 30 participants were UALR chancellor Joel Anderson, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, Innovate Arkansas director Tom Dalton, Arkansas tech pioneer James Hendren, UALR consultant and former dean Mary Good, Little Rock tech park director Brent Birch, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Jay Chesshir, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences vice chancellor for research Larry Cornett, Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub director (and State Rep.) Warwick Sabin, and Arkansas Venture Center president Lee Watson.

Cone came away impressed with the ongoing development of the innovation ecosystem in central Arkansas, particularly the involvement of high-level civic leaders, both public and private.

“We need to focus more on the business community at North Carolina,” she said. “You’re doing a much better job in that here than we are.”

The symbiotic relationship between research universities and private enterprise and the commercialization that results from it was a focus of discussion following Cone’s talk.

The state is emphasizing commercialization of research being produced at its research-producing universities. In 2011, the state signed an agreement to establish a nanotechnology research collaboration with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson and the state’s research universities. 

In 2013, the Arkansas Research Alliance, representing those universities, partnered with the FDA to commercialize NCTR research, and in December that partnership was extended.

“I think everyone realizes the untapped potential our universities have with respect to the generation of intellectual property, and the importance to our region for giving our best efforts to unlocking that potential,” Stinson said.

Arkansas may never become anything like North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle, but Stinson believes the research coming out of the University of Arkansas, UALR and UAMS, in particular, paired with the growing startup ecosystem in central and northwest Arkansas, can develop into something like it. 

“I think we can have some smaller version of it, which is one of the goals of our downtown tech park,” he said. “For that to happen, our universities will have to continue to grow their base of applied research, better engage with business and industry, and our tech park will need to successfully recruit companies which want to collaborate with the universities.”

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