Innovation at Gillings SPH

On March 9, 2016, five speakers at the annual GillingsX event shared how they apply innovative approaches to the field of public health, both locally and globally. The GillingsX talks, which are similar in format to TED Talks, offer pithy, engaging takes on complex subjects.

On March 9, 2016, five speakers at the annual GillingsX event shared how they apply innovative approaches to the field of public health, both locally and globally. The GillingsX talks, which are similar in format to TED Talks, offer pithy, engaging takes on complex subjects.

The Gillings School is committed to research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and problem solving. Our resources, including the $50 million Gillings gift, allow the school of public health to accelerate its response to some of the most pressing public health problems across North Carolina and around the world. The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health has been an innovation leader since the School opened in 1940.

Innovation made fundamental

We take to heart the Innovate Carolina concept that “an innovation is the successful implementation of a novel, valuable idea.” Our public health innovations must be needed and adopted, not just new. Our approach focuses on several fundamental components:

  • We focus on the biggest public health threats & challenges, such as water & sanitation.
  • Education.  Classes, capstones, entrepreneurs and advisers, competitions, and implementation science. We’ve created special educational experiences, often in partnership with others on campus, and people beyond UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • Smart approaches. We prioritize creativity, interdisciplinary teams, customer focus, rigor, agility, persistence, passion for public health, a sense of urgency, and smart risk taking. We put significant effort into getting good ideas translated into clinics, communities, companies and non-profits.
  • Rewards and culture. Funding from the Gillings gift, particularly, Gillings Innovation Labs (GILs), and an entrepreneur-in-residence, facilitate innovation in the School. We always have been innovators, but having new resources, people and processes have enabled us to up our game.
  • Processes and metrics. Our investment in Gillings Innovation Labs, Gillings Visiting Professors, and the Water Institute has led to $50 million in follow-on and leveraged funding. Just as powerful are the faculty collaborations, students funded, and innovation powerhouses—such as the Water Institute—that innovation has given us. We have streamlined and time-tested a process to solicit, select and support these research investments.
  • Alignment.  University resources and partners help to ensure that the best ideas get out to the world in a sustainable way. We have benefited from the efforts and support of Judith Cone, vice-chancellor for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development, Office of Commercialization and Economic Development, Kenan-Flagler, Minor in Entrepreneurship, social innovation at the Campus Y, campus incubators, Be A Maker initiatives (co-lead by ESE faculty member Glen Walters, PhD), and 150+ colleagues in Carolina’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship community.
  • Take risks & move beyond our comfort zones.  This fall, two of our Health Behavior students were one of five national teams selected for Innovation Next awards which provide winners $325,000 and access to some of the country’s best innovation resources. The goal is for Liz Chen and Christina Leos’s Real Talk  to become a marketable product. We want our faculty, staff and students to take risks, move beyond their comfort zones, and go where others have not gone; we mobilize resources and support to help them succeed.
  • Inspired partners. Cambridge University, the Pasteur Institute, universities and companies across North Carolina and around the world
  • Gillings Innovation Labs: impact is fundamental. One of our Gillings Visiting Professors, Sheila Leatherman, advised Suzanne Maman, PhD, associate professor in Health Behavior, on the intersection of microfinance and health. Together, they competed successfully for a Gillings Innovation Lab award to work with young men in Tanzania to reduce the spread of HIV. From this pilot study, Dr. Maman produced rigorous evidence to include in an NIH proposal, and received an NIH grant. Our $80,000 “risk” helped her obtain $3.5 million for a larger, more definitive study. Microfinance helped improve health and lives in Tanzania. Til Stürmer, MD, PhD, obtained GIL funding to build a continually-updated Medicare data resource. He and colleagues produced many high-impact publications, NIH funding, and increased visibility as a resource for industry-academia collaborations. Mugdha Gokhale, PhD, a doctoral student who worked on the GIL, was named one of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” people to watch in health care in 2016.

Innovation includes course structure and content, how we teach and facilities for teaching and learning. We are in the process of a major redesign of our MPH core courses, integrating across disciplines and using appropriate 21st century methods to engage students in solving problems and align their skills with jobs for which our students compete.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of our transformative $50 million Gillings gift, innovation is reaching a multiplicative phase.  Innovation, not only at Gillings but also with our partners across campus and beyond, has huge ripple effects on our campus, across North Carolina and around the world. Successful innovation flourishes within an innovation culture. It requires resources and people with the skills, talent, knowledge, motivation and will to push the frontiers of what has been to arrive at what could be. We speed the process by providing the means to acquire knowledge and skills (e.g. entrepreneurship minor), innovation mentors and guides (including our entrepreneur-in-residence), opportunities to practice pitches and transparent processes.  Innovation leadership is the catalyst that drives the culture, and we aim to make that leadership more skilled and more intentional.