Editor’s note: WRAL Tech Wire asked Tom Stevens, founder of Think Leadership Ideas and mayor of Hillsoborough, NC, to comment on UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp’s presentation at a Association for Corporate Growth’s recent event. Think Leadership Ideas is a leadership development firm. Stevens is a board member with the ACG Raleigh-Durham chapter.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp provided timely comments about the future of the Triangle and of America earlier this week.

Thorp spoke at a regular meeting the Raleigh Durham chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) to an audience of over 80 local and regional executives, investment bankers, private equity players and other professionals. His message echoed the theme of a recent book he co-authored, “Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century.”

Thorp began the breakfast talk not by touting his many academic and business successes, but rather by describing his first business failure which resulted in the company burning through $30 million and ultimately being acquired through bankruptcy. He used the story as a cautionary example that simply generating innovative ideas and starting companies is not by itself a sufficient formula for economic success. Having experience and talent readily available makes an enormous difference, which is why successful enterprises in any given field tend to cluster in centers of excellence.

In much the same way that coffeehouses of 18th century London were a catalyst for major advances in science because they brought together great thinkers to share ideas, universities and cities provide the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” for America to remain globally competitive in the 21st century. Research universities are particularly suited for the cross-pollination of ideas and experience.

A recent column by journalist David Brooks also extolls the virtues of research universities as critical to America’s future, for much the same reasons as offered by Thorp. The two arranged to have a conversation about the topic, readily accessible via YouTube.

The Chancellor also noted a statement from President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair…” That statement sent Thorp rummaging through his closet to pull out all his old science competition trophies. The President’s comment, Brooks’ article, and the current media attention to leaders in technology and science, all have lead Thorp to proclaim this the “Era of the Nerd” which he sees as a positive trend.

Research suggests, Thorp noted, that the most significant factor impacting whether a academician with brilliant ideas uses her knowledge to start a company is whether she has a neighbor who is venture capitalist. The presence of so many universities in the Triangle assures there is no shortage of innovative ideas. However, Thorp notes, the Triangle region still needs to attract a talent pool of managers, funders and students with successful track records of founding, funding, and operating companies.

Thorp sees great potential in the “entrepreneur in residence” program at UNC to foster a “culture” of entrepreneurism. In a region where the professors don’t have as many venture capital neighbors like Silicon Valley and Boston do, active effort to bridge the academic world and the business world will be critical to the future of the region. Thorp also stressed the importance of human factors and creating a culture of entrepreneurism, an environment where people are a bit uncomfortable and exposed to ideas outside their silos.

If bringing together diverse experience is the message, the local ACG chapter has a track record of embracing it, and Thorp’s comments fell on receptive ears. Recently the chapter sponsored a gathering inviting local CEOs for a special viewing of the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the NC Museum of Art. The ACG chapter’s annual Capital Conference brings together hundreds of dealmakers, private equity funds, and CEOs from across the nation. The chapter sponsors the ACG Cup competition, with five Triangle business schools participating this year. Regular programs feature not only corporate executives and business topics, but have featured outside-the-field speakers such as Thorp and behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

The efforts have paid off as the Raleigh-Durham chapter was awarded Chapter of the Year by ACG Global. ACG Global is a mid-market growth and deal making organization with 55 chapters and over 13,000 members worldwide.

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