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Wash U's new provost has roots in academia, entrepreneurship

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2013  - Washington University has named a noted academic and biotech entrepreneur as its new provost in a move that could help boost its research efforts and graduate programs on the national scene and perhaps bolster the region’s growing profile among life sciences and other startups.

Holden Thorp, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will assume his new duties at the institution July 1. He announced his intent to leave his previous job last fall.

“Holden is one of the most highly respected leaders in higher education,” said Chancellor Mark Wrighton. “He’s been a successful leader of a major research university of great quality, and he does come with special experiences that I believe are going to help us realize our aspirations.”

Thorp, 48, replaces Edward Macias, who served as the school’s provost for a quarter century.

“This was an opportunity that I was excited about for lots of different reasons,” said Thorp, in a weekend conversation with the Beacon. “Working for Mark Wrighton was one of them and being in a place that is this good as well as being in the provost’s role were all things I was looking for.”

Thorp’s roots at UNC ran deep. A native of North Carolina, he earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the institution before moving on to additional studies at the California Institute of Technology and Yale University. An educator at UNC since 1993, he was chancellor since 2008.

The appointment comes at a time when Wash U is continuing to expand its footprint as a major force in academic research and interdisciplinary entrepreneurship initiatives, an effort in which Thorp may play a role. A holder of 12 patents and author of 130 scholarly articles on the electronic properties of DNA and RNA, Thorp has founded various startups and serves on President Barack Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He also co-wrote the book "Engines of Innovation – The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century."

A variety of experience

Thorp said he felt it was helpful to have experience not just in research but in translating lab work to real-world applications, something that can be a challenge for those in the academic world, even if the product itself is solid.

“My first company created technology that is still being used today in genetic testing,” said Thorp, referring to Xanthon Inc., a venture he founded in 1996. “The patents are still licensed, but we didn’t produce a good business outcome because we needed money in 2001. A lot of scientists think, ‘Well, if my idea works, I’m definitely going to make money off of it, if it is commercially relevant,’ but there’s a huge lesson there. Business is real work in and of itself.”

Thorp was recognized by Fortune Small Business for his work at Xanthon and later created Viamet Pharmaceuticals, another biotech concern that now has two molecules in Phase II trials.

Washington University has shown an increasing interest in translational applications that help smooth the road to commercialization with projects like the Biologic Therapeutics Center founded in 2011 to facilitate “bench-to-bedside” research.

It’s one of many initiatives that spotlights the long path inherent to technology transfer in the academic world, an area in which Thorp feels his experience in startups may prove useful.

“There are really three parties in that transaction,” he said. “There’s the faculty member. There’s the company, and there’s the university. That’s a complex triangle. I’ve sat in all three of those seats, and I think that gives me a lot of perspective in terms of how to do these things.”

He talked about the Carolina express license program underway at UNC to speed the sometimes maddeningly slow process of biotech commercialization in which technology can take years or even decades to go from idea to profit. It’s a distinctly different world than IT or internet applications in which concepts can catch fire in months.

“We’ve done a lot to change our policies to make it easier for faculty members to do these kinds of things,” he said. “Higher education needs to do that because people look at these places and they want to see more coming out in terms of economic activity. The university also needs to be able to articulate the importance of research. It’s hard to do because a lot of the research we do doesn’t pay off until sometime in the future.”

Highlight graduate programs

Thorp said his priorities will be to highlight the good work being done in the graduate programs, which he believes are not receiving the national recognition they deserve. He also said that Wash U serves as a magnet for talented young people who often stay to make a life in St. Louis after graduation.

“Those are tremendous intangible benefits that a region like this gets from having a place like Wash U,” he said.

The university’s intangibles certainly attracted Thorp. He said he found the institution interesting for the culture of longevity it creates.

“Bill Danforth was chancellor for a long time,” he said. “Mark Wrighton’s been chancellor for a long time and pretty much everybody I’ve met has been here for 20 years. This is a place that values experience and continuity and those things are really appealing.”

He said that so far, he’s enjoying absorbing the St. Louis culture though he’s still a bit coy on whether he’ll give up his allegiance to his beloved Tar Heels.

“The good thing about coming to a Division III school is that I can be for both teams and not have to worry about them playing each other,” he laughed.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of the Gateway City yet to take in.

“I’ve been to the top of the Arch,” he said. “I haven’t been to Ted Drewes yet but everybody tells me that’s something that I have to do.”

Thorp’s wife, Patti Worden Thorp, will be relocating with him to St. Louis. The couple has two children, John, 18, and Emma, 14.