An interesting university capital campaign: Innovate Carolina

For some time, I’ve been arguing that there’s nothing in the typical university’s portfolio of commercialization activities that necessarily needs to be dependent on government grant support. In fact, universities are free to ask private donors to fund anything from the basic operations of the tech transfer office to the costs of running a proof-of-concept or commercialization center.

That universities have typically not asked for such support, but rather have waited for a motivated donor to drop it in their lap unbidden, ((e.g., Desh Deshpande at MIT.)) is a function of opportunity cost. Every time a university president makes an “ask” of this kind, that’s one less donor who can be asked for a dormitory, a professorship, or a financial aid fund. To date, few presidents have been able to convince themselves that that are donors who will consider funding commercialization activities who would not otherwise be giving to more conventional entries on the “table of needs.”

Now (my thanks to Cameron Ford at the University of Central Florida’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation for pointing this out to me) we have a real, live example of a university capital campaign that actually prominently features such requests: the $125 million Innovate Carolina campaign launched last month by UNC Chapel Hill. The campaign is modest in size, but daring in what it includes. After the break, you can read or download from Scribd the eight-page “case statement” for the campaign.

Among other and more-conventional priorities in the broad area of innovation, UNC has decided ask for a $15 million endowed fund (at a 5% payout, that would generate ~$750,000/year) to support hiring Enterpreneurs in Residence and a $3.5 million current, expendable fund for a “KickStart” program on the model of successful Venture Lab/POC programs around the nation.

Despite its role holding down one corner of the renowned “Research Triangle,” UNC Chapel Hill has never been among the more aggressive of the three universities at commercializing faculty inventions or student innovations in a way that promotes regional economic development. This campaign represents a major step forward and one other campus development offices would do well to note.

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