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Mariava Phillips
April 8, 2024

At first glance, working in strategy may not seem to be directly related to public service, but Roy Zwahlen, J.D., is using his role at Eshelman Innovation and the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy to change lives across North Carolina. 

Zwahlen, Chief Strategy Officer for Eshelman Innovation and Associate Dean for Strategic Partnerships and Risk Management at the School, was selected for the 2024 Robert E. Bryan Public Service Award for his work in translating innovation into real products and services that impact patients in our communities. 

As someone from a long line of military veterans, including World Wars I and II, and health care professionals, this award is particularly special to Zwahlen. “It connects me back to my roots of public service—a generational core value of my family, which is incredibly meaningful to me,” he said.  

The UNC Carolina Center for Public Service gives this award to individual students, faculty, staff and organizations for extraordinary public service and engagement in service to the state of North Carolina. 

“What really sets our work apart is that we partner with innovators and communities to bring infrastructure to the table. The solution is locked up due to lack of infrastructure and resources and it’s our job, as partners, to unlock that potential rather than solve the problem for them,” said Zwahlen. 

He joined the Eshelman Innovation team seven years ago and completely transformed its strategic direction. He brought clarity to its focus, specifically the development of a therapeutic accelerator developing new drugs and a digital health venture studio launching new digital health startup companies across the state. The goal was to find and support innovators who could impact patients while delivering economic impact for the state. 

“In all Roy does, he is the epitome of our institution’s mission to act for the betterment of North Carolina,” said John Bamforth, Ph.D., executive director of Eshelman Innovation and the one who nominated Zwahlen for the award. “Be it his work at the School, Eshelman Innovation or within his own community, Roy always puts others first. Above all else, he is committed to helping solve some of our state’s biggest health care challenges. Patients always come first for Roy.” 

Zwahlen was part of the team that launched the Rapidly Evolving Antiviral Drug Development Initiative (READDI), a global non-profit launched prior to the pandemic and dedicated to developing small molecule antiviral drugs across five viral families. He supported the strategy and helped build the business model. READDI now has more than 20 new molecules for the next time a novel virus emerges. 

As part of his leadership with the digital health venture studio, two new startup companies have been launched to tackle the state’s opioid crisis – Goldie and Valable. The former is a solution for patients who have just experienced an overdose, while the latter is for patients in recovery trying to find a job.  

Though most of what Zwahlen does is behind the scenes, he is clearly creating a path that’s making a difference in health journeys across North Carolina. “Innovators and entrepreneurs are often told to first ‘fall in love with the problem’ to better understand how to bring a solution to the table.  Falling in love with the problem is, for me, falling in love with the communities affected by the problem and then partnering with them to bring forward solutions for patients in North Carolina and beyond,” he said. 

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