CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA — At the age of 17, Holden Thorp placed fifth in a nationally televised Rubik’s cube competition on the ABC show That’s Incredible! At 24, he received a doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology after studying for three years instead of five. And at 43, he was named chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, becoming one of the country’s youngest university presidents.

Today, Thorp is trying to turn this 29,000-student public university into an engine of economic innovation. A business owner who has twice launched $25 million pharmaceutical startups, Thorp has streamlined the process for faculty members to turn their discoveries into private companies. He has made “entrepreneurship” a minor for all undergraduate students.

And Thorp has co-written a book, Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, with the university’s “entrepreneur in residence” — a former venture capital banker. It calls for the top 125 U.S. research universities to revitalize the American economy.

“The jobs of the near and distant future,” he told me, “are going to be for those who create them for themselves.”

As high-paying jobs have flowed overseas, American universities are being increasingly seen as economic engines for states, regions and the country as a whole. Across the U.S., communities with universities and colleges fared better economically during the recession than those without, according to the Wall Street Journal. And as other employers have disappeared, universities and colleges are increasingly considered sources of economic — as well as intellectual –activity.