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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Napier’s career has been driven by the need for purposeful challenge

Mary Napier was 27 when she quit her job at a small pharmaceutical company to go back to school.

And her father, a machinist, thought she had lost her mind when she told him of her plan. She had that job for five years, he told her. It paid good money. And he had used some of his hard-earned money so she could get her chemistry degree from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

In fact, though, the opposite was true: She thought she was losing her mind at the job because she didn’t have to use it enough. It was too routine, too easy, too uninspiring.

She went on to get a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Northwestern University and completed postdoctoral research at Harvard University.

It was also at Northwestern where she met her husband, Mike Gagne. Together, they moved to Boston for postdoctoral work at Harvard. When her husband got a job in Carolina’s chemistry department, Napier stayed home with their first child.

When she went back to work in March 1996, it was to do postdoctoral work with now-Chancellor Holden Thorp, who was then a chemistry professor in the process of starting Xanthon Inc. The start-up ultimately failed, but Thorp moved on to other ventures, as did Napier, who joined with Joe DeSimone, Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry, in his academic laboratory and served as the liaison for projects with Liquidia Technologies and Synecor.

She has also published more than 40 papers and filed more than 30 patent applications during her career.

“I think my whole career has been about seeing where things take you and being open to new opportunities as they appear,” said Napier, who received a 2012 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

‘A selfless scientific leader’

A prime example is her new job as executive director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, which she started in September.

Napier is a scientist, not a businesswoman, but she is no stranger to the science of startups, thanks in part to her long association with serial entrepreneurs Thorp and DeSimone.

DeSimone now divides his time between the DeSimone Research Group and the Kenan Institute, where he is director. The dynamic of Napier’s relationship with DeSimone at the institute is much the same as it was when Napier served as manager of his research group.

DeSimone described Napier as a “selfless scientific leader” with a superb knack of bringing people and projects together across campus and far beyond.

She has played a leading role in collaborations with scientists including Stephen Frye in pharmacy, Carey Anders in hematology and oncology, Jack Griffith in biochemistry and biophysics, Russ Mumper in pharmacy (and N.C. State’s biomedical engineering) and Leaf Huang in molecular pharmaceutics, DeSimone said.

In addition, she has led efforts to forge collaborations with Harvard, MIT, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Novartis.

“Mary has a fervent commitment to fostering high-impact, interdisciplinary research collaborations,” DeSimone said. “She also personifies some of Carolina’s most central values and commitments: hard work, dedication, excellence and humility.”

An entrepreneurial bent

As much as Napier likes the energy of a start-up company and as much as she enjoys being around entrepreneurs, she does not consider herself to be one.

There is a critical difference, she said, between someone who has an entrepreneurial mindset, and someone – like her – with an entrepreneurial bent.

“Someone with an entrepreneurial mindset – people like Holden and Joe – have innovation at their core,” she said. “They have a drive to create something from nothing, and I’ve never created from nothing.”

Still, she loves the charged atmosphere of start-ups, the challenge of working in a place where every day is different, and every day you can be called upon to wear a different hat – from ordering lab equipment to doing bench experiments to putting together board presentations.

“I love swimming in that pool,” she said. “I think the role I have played is being the key person who understands what has to get done, the person who can translate the vision into a daily purpose – of knowing what needs to happen next.”

Entrepreneurs also accept that failure is a real possibility, but that doesn’t stop them.

“They know there will be times when they fail,” Napier said. “They understand that sometimes it will be their fault and other times they will fail because of circumstances beyond their control.

“In either case, they will take what they learned from the experience and move to whatever the next adventure is.”

Charting a new course

The latest adventure, for both Napier and DeSimone, is leading the Kenan Institute. For the past 22 years it had been led by Jack Kasarda, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship who stepped down to focus on his research on aerotropolis, which positions airports as 21st-century drivers of urban economic growth.

This fall, the institute has begun a strategic planning process to adapt its mission for the 21st century.

“We can’t be everything for everybody,” Napier said. “But what is it that we can do? And what is it that we want to do?

“One goal, of course, is to help position the state’s research universities and the individual researchers to allow them to play a leadership role in new enterprise formation, and by doing so, accelerate entrepreneurship on this campus. But we also want to think about how we can spread the impact of that entrepreneurship throughout the state and the world.”

She admits it is a daunting goal.

“If we pull off any of what we are talking about, it will be huge,” Napier said. “I am grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of it.

“Being on the ground floor of something that could make a difference – that’s exciting, that’s fun, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I just want to do the best job I can.”