September 21, 2022
With passion from its leader, the Eshelman Institute for Innovation empowers UNC translation through a culture of diversity, drive and delivery.
“Innovation is seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” The quote from Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Novel Prize winning biochemist, appropriately sums up the energy, drive, and “moonshot” attitude that John Bamforth, PhD, brings to his role as Director of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation.
John grew up in the northwest part of England in a blue-collar mining town. He comes by his work ethic and affinity for sales from a hard-working family with a father who was a salesman his entire life. John reflects, “I had a passion for science, but my dad was always a sales guy. He had his own business until he was 78, and he was a guy that always took risks. My parents gave me the support system to do things differently.”
After completing pharmacy school and a PhD in neuropharmacology, John went straight into pharmaceutical sales with Eli Lilly where he enjoyed a 30-year career. His decision to go straight into sales was questioned by a number of peers and colleagues. Yet these early experiences taught John the importance of drive, effort, and motivation—core values that remained with him as he moved up the ranks in his career with Lilly.
John went on to lead dynamic, highly engaged teams who built global brands. He is deeply passionate about creating a culture that allows people to thrive. “For me, it always comes down to removing the shackles and letting people fly,” said John. “In my experience, if you put the right sorts of people in an engaging culture, amazing things happen. As a leader, the key is being willing to let go and trust.”
Building teams in a global organization reinforced John’s belief in the power of diversity, equity, and inclusion in accelerating innovation and organizational performance. “I watched teams of varied cultures and backgrounds working together and accomplishing the goals they created,” reflected Bamforth. “It was a cool thing to see the power of these teams come to life, and diversity was at the heart of it.” John has carried forward this commitment to his work at UNC. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is an underpinning to the work of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation.
Bamforth joined the Eshelman Institute for Innovation as Director in October 2019, before the pandemic shut the world down. About 12 months prior to the pandemic, the Institute had funded a research project led by three renowned UNC virologists aimed at developing novel antiviral drugs. Over the past three years, Bamforth and the Institute team have partnered with these co-founders to build this initial concept into a global public-private partnership called READDI, or the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative, “It was motivational for the entire team. We all had a collective passion around doing something very important,” said John, “But it was also gratifying to see funding roll in, as well as being a part of the 100 Day Mission strategy presented at the G7 meeting that year by the UK Prime Minister’s cabinet office.”
The pace of innovation over the past three years at the Eshelman Institute for Innovation has been blistering. In addition to launching READDI, Bamforth has helped power the launch of new pan-university initiatives aimed at translating bold new ideas from faculty into real-world impact for patients. The Institute helped support the launch of the Drug Discovery Initiative to provide access to new technologies and partners to advance therapeutic programs. Additionally, Bamforth’s team worked with UNC Health to create a new Digital Health Venture Studio as a unique model to commercialize digital health technologies. This initiative has attracted the interest of high-value partners like Amazon AWS and High Alpha Innovation.
When asked what he is most proud of so far, John points to the team – the diversity that each member brings, how everyone works together so well, and how much they have accomplished, so quickly. For him, they embody the Institute’s vision of a culture of innovation where bold ideas and creative solutions accelerate change in research and healthcare.
“The Institute, under John’s leadership, has become what it was envisioned to be: an engine to translate raw ideas into high impact solutions.” Angela Kashuba, Dean of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, emphasizes “He has brought focus, energy and a strong vision that has had significant impact within the school and across campus. I can’t wait to see what’s next!”