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E(I) lab students make a final presentation.
Hiral Jivanji, Nathan Howell, Huy Pham and Nan Wang — participants in the 2016 E(I) Lab — make their final presentation before a panel of judges.

The Carolina E(I) Lab, part of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, concluded its pilot year by hosting final presentations from the inaugural cohort of student teams on Oct. 1, with the top four teams awarded monetary prizes. The presentations were evaluated by a panel of judges that included Bob Blouin, Pharm.D., dean of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, and Dhiren Thakker, Ph.D., the School’s associate dean for entrepreneurial development.

E(I) Lab is a six-month experiential program that exposes professional students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to the cycle of creating an innovative product and bringing it to market. The program was created by Sam Lai, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics.

“The common trend you see across all higher education institutions is that there are a lot of resources available to undergraduates and faculty,” he said. “But far more limited resources are available to professional students, graduate students and postdocs. We as a school believe that in order to really create a culture of innovation, we need to start at the grassroots level, and it has to occur at the level of students and postdocs.”

That was the motivation behind creating the E(I) Lab, Lai said.

“We want to make the students feel that they are empowered to pursue their visions and that we are there to support and enable them,” he said. “I was very fortunate that the Eshelman Institute shared the same vision.”

The E(I) Lab is funded by the institute, the UNC Research Opportunities Initiative, and the Venture Well Foundation, the largest foundation that supports innovation entrepreneurship in higher education institutions across the country.

The E(I) Lab kicked off with a hackathon-like weekend in March. Students were presented with problems, formed their own teams and started developing solutions. The program provided the teams with both intellectual and financial resources to develop a prototype, study it and field test it, Lai said.

“A major problem with a lot of entrepreneurial endeavors is that the basic scientist or engineer could come up with a solution to a problem, but what they don’t try to better understand is whether there is a marketplace for their solution,” he said. “It could be that, yes, your solution can solve the problem, but people won’t adopt it.”

By following the Lean Startup curriculum, the E(I) Lab encourages the teams to talk to professional buyers, physicians, patients and others as they develop prototypes to ensure there is a place in the marketplace for them and that there aren’t any competitors in that space, Lai said. The program also brings in speakers to talk about topics such as financial projections, other potential distribution channels and revenue-stream models, as well as successful entrepreneurs from around the Triangle to share their experiences and what factors enabled their success.

“Ultimately, the point is to provide them with both intellectual capital, as well as actual financial capital, to enable the teams to tackle the problems that they were given,” he said. “The final weekend was a culmination of all that they’ve done.”

Lai said the schedule of the E(I) Lab program will be changing for its second year with the program kicking off in November and concluding by the end of the spring. Applications for the program are due by midnight on Nov. 2 and can be found here.

The participants in the 2015 E(I) Lab in the Eshelman Institute for Innovation at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.
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