Healthcare innovation thrives in Chapel Hill with help from UNC

Organizations like the E(I) Lab Pharmacoengineering Program at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at UNC are at the front lines of healthcare innovation.

Posted Updated
Natalie Yerger
, freelance reporter
This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill's unique combination of one of the nation's top healthcare systems, the university's medical teaching institutions and the proximity to the Research Triangle Park has drawn national attention and acclaim to the town for decades.

In fact, the recently released U.S. News & World's "Best Hospitals" report for 2019-2020 ranks the UNC Health Care System as one of the top in the nation across five specialties. This is evidence that Chapel Hill continues to be a place where people chart new ground.

Healthcare innovation, in particular, isn't slowing down anytime soon, and it's happening both on and off campus.

Organizations like the E(I) Lab Pharmacoengineering Program at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are at the front lines of it. Designed to train graduate, professional and postdoctoral students in aspects of entrepreneurship and innovation, the E(I) Lab is a six-month-long experiential program that solicits problems across the entire spectrum of healthcare for which participants develop prototypes.

Sam Lai, the principal architect of the E(I) Lab, was inspired to start the lab after noticing the lack of entrepreneurial programs offered to advanced study students.

"As a faculty, I began to think, 'What can I do to instill a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation within the school,'" Lai said. "There are many innovation and entrepreneurship resources across the campus available for undergraduates and faculty members, but there aren't very many for graduate students, professional students and post-docs, and this population represents a sizeable group."

In the lab, which draws students from pharmacy, law, medicine, nursing, public health and even library science, participants are given a pre-vetted problem to solve. At the end of the program, teams make a final presentation to a panel of physicians, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs for monetary prizes of up to $3,000.

The teams that aren't ranked don't walk away from the lab empty handed, though. All take with them real-world, problem-solving experience, entrepreneurial wisdom from speakers and mentors, and, perhaps, a different approach to their careers.

"We've seen quite a few participants that have gone through this program and are drawn to the notion of entrepreneurship and unconventional paths relative to the particular expected path for, let's say, a pharmacist," Lai pointed out. "For example, some have joined the Adams Apprenticeship program or gone onto internships at startups."

While the program has yet to see a prototype go to market, Lai said the goal of the E(I) Lab isn't necessarily to encourage students to pursue seed funding, or dropout and begin a startup. The lab isn't a course by design, which allows participants to focus on their degrees while enjoying learning about entrepreneurship.

Lai and his team feel that much of what makes the lab successful is the conversion of talent and diversity happening in the area.

"Whether it's the southern hospitality or not, people love to work together here. They're very genuine. They're very collaborative. The vibe is different compared to other academic institutions," he said. "All of those are very strong pluses as to why Chapel Hill is an attractive place for pursuing cutting-edge medical science and, consequently, medical innovation."

David Dickson Jr., a UNC graduate turned entrepreneur, echoed this sentiment. His company, TSI Healthcare, is one of the largest private employers in Chapel Hill.

TSI Healthcare started with humble beginnings in 1997, with Dickson working from his garage to connect physicians to companies that were providing practice management services. In the late 1990s, electronic health records (EHRs) came onto the scene, and his business grew dramatically. The company now has 200 employees, but he said Chapel Hill was an easy choice for the company's headquarters.

"I'm a Tar Heel and have been since birth. That made it easy to want to be back in Chapel Hill," Dickson said.

TSI Healthcare's offices were located in Durham for a short while, but as a Tar Heel, when an opportunity presented itself in Chapel Hill, Dickson acted quickly.

The company's services focus on streamlining the patient experience and connecting physicians from across the nation by providing highly customized health IT solutions for physicians in private practice. When an individual sees a doctor who is using TSI Healthcare’s system and is connected to the interoperability network, that doctor will have secure, real-time access to their medical history, medication information, and more. This information is shared between connected caregivers nationwide, ensuring patients receive the most collaborative care possible.

"It's nice to go to a doctor's office where they don't have to ask you what medications you are on," Dickson said. "They can tell you."

He expects business will double in the next several years as the healthcare landscape continues to change, and considers the company lucky to be a part of the recent developments that are making Chapel Hill more business-friendly.

"When we moved our headquarters to Chapel Hill, we had friends in the Chamber of Commerce and the Town of Chapel Hill Economic Development Department that were very encouraging to us," Dickson said. "I'd say to any entrepreneur that Chapel Hill is open for business, as they say. It's a very business-friendly environment and we expect to be here for many years to come."

This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.


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