Editor’s note: As the new associate director in Innovate Carolina’s Office of Technology Commercialization, Dean Stell helps UNC researchers get their discoveries to market – creating economic and human good for the University, state and world.  This is TechWire’s latest Innovation Thursday feature.

CHAPEL HILL – For many faculty researchers and startup founders, the idea of taking a technology to market can be daunting. Where do you start? How do you navigate the process? How far along does the research need to be to get started? At UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC), researchers and startup founders find professional guidance, resources, funding and the one-on-one support they need to turn their discoveries and inventions into valuable therapies, devices and other products and services that benefit people across North Carolina and the world. OTC is part of Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s central team for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development. Over the years, researchers at Carolina worked with the commercialization experts at OTC to disclose over 3,600 new inventions, license over 1,500 technologies to market and launch 149 startups based on intellectual property.

Innovate Carolina spoke with Dean Stell, the new associate director of technology commercialization and a Carolina alumnus, to hear how OTC helps faculty researchers find the smartest paths to human and economic impact. Stell comes to Carolina with more than 20 years of experience in the technology commercialization group at Wake Forest University, where he licensed all forms of intellectual property in a wide variety of technology areas.

1. Tell us about your role as associate director of the Office of Technology Commercialization.  

My role as the associate director has me wearing two hats. First, I will have my own portfolio of technologies developed at UNC. My task is to connect those technologies with external partners to further the commercialization goals of the university and the faculty innovators. My other hat is to use the experience developed over the last (almost) quarter century in this business to help others on the team do the same with their projects. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.”

2. How will you help faculty researchers and inventors as they seek to get their inventions and technologies into the wider world to benefit the greater good?

My goals are essentially the same as the university’s and our faculty’s. The essential missions are research and education, with all university functions supporting those missions, whether it is the controller’s office or the library. My group happens to use the commercialization of technologies to further those basic missions. When we do our basic jobs, it provides more, richer and better opportunities for research and education. Our group also plays a non-trivial role in recruitment and retention of innovative faculty. Funded faculty can be quite mobile, and while their decisions are mostly based on where they get the best financial and facility support, a capable and competent technology commercialization function is part of the ecosystem that can serve as a tiebreaker.

3. How does OTC offer support to faculty researchers and inventors through resources and programs? 

The main thing a group like ours offers to faculty is expertise about what technologies are likely to attract commercial interest and which are not. A less appreciated aspect of that expertise is when it is time to stop. Everyone in our line of work is a huge optimist about their own technologies. If we said “no” to everything, there is no reason for us to even be here. Our jobs depend on finding some exciting opportunities. So, if we’re skeptical on day one, there is probably a reason for that. Or, if we become skeptical in years two or three, there is also probably a reason.


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“The main thing a group like ours offers to faculty is expertise about what technologies are likely to attract commercial interest and which are not.”
Dean Stell, associate director, UNC Office of Technology Commercialization

4. Are partnerships valuable to OTC’s work? Why?

Everything OTC and I do is a partnership. All good partnerships – whether in life or business – are based on mutual respect, empathy, transparency and gain. It’s simply impossible for any person or group to have every skill required to take an idea from conception all the way to a commercial product. So, partnerships are essential and welcome.

5. Given your prior experience in technology commercialization in a university environment, what excites you about this role at UNC? 

This could be a very long answer because there is so much to be excited about. For starters, I’ve known most of the OTC team for years, especially our directors Kelly Parsons and Jackie Quay. It’s just a very professional team that knows what it’s doing and is unified around a mission. During my interview process, I was able to meet our Chief Innovation Officer Michelle Bolas, and many other members of the innovation ecosystem. All were impressive and aligned on the basic mission.

Another reason is the raw research excellence and horsepower of the labs here at UNC. How many other universities have had two faculty members awarded the Nobel Prize in the last 15 years? And at UNC, it is top to bottom. Most labs are doing very impressive science and publishing in very solid journals. That makes my job a lot smoother. Lastly, I got my undergrad here at UNC in the early 1990s, and it’s a chance to return to a place where I have so many fond memories. Some things have changed, but many remain the same.

6. What advice would you offer a graduate student or faculty researcher as they look to commercialize their research?

The main advice I would give is to interact with OTC early and often. We don’t require you to fill out forms just to talk to us. Just shoot us an email, and we’ll engage with you. The other bit of advice is to be mindful of the impact non-manuscript publications (posters and abstracts) can have on patentability. They’re a vital part of building the CVs of graduate students and post-docs, but they may not need to have as much information to serve that purpose, such as the actual chemical structure or a sentence or two about future research directions.


Visit Innovate Carolina’s dashboard to see how Carolina researchers are working with OTC to take technologies to market and make a human and economic impact. Learn more about OTC’s programs and services on the Office of Technology Commercialization website.