Commercial innovation gets larger role in UNR research
Mridul Gautam is an engineer by training, so it’s only natural that he’d establish numerical standards to grade his performance as vice president for research and innovation at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Some are easy: How many non-disclosure agreements are signed by companies that want to take a peek at UNR research? How many patents are awarded to UNR researchers?
But his most important work, the new UNR vice president says, is far more difficult to grade by the numbers.
“How do you measure the trust you are trying to create?” he asks. “How do you measure the creation of an atmosphere of innovation?”
Gautam’s success will play a critical role in the creation of new base for the economy of northern Nevada — and the entire state, for that matter. Research discoveries in the state’s university system may inspire development of new companies and entirely new industries.
Since his arrival on the UNR campus on Oct. 1, Gautam has been heading into the community for a busy schedule of meetings with economic development professionals, angel investment groups and the like.
“I’m out there looking for experts,” Gautam says. “They want to help.”
Mike Kazmierski, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, welcomes Gautam’s approach.
“He brings a fresh, collaborative perspective to the university and understands the value and importance of taking student and faculty ideas and academic research to the next level, which encourages commercialization and eventually start-up job creation,” the EDAWN CEO says. “His eagerness to work with the community and local industry will accelerate the university’s push to enhance community engagement.”
Gautam’s title — “vice president for research and innovation” — reflects the university’s commitment to partner with industry at the same time that it’s developing research opportunities for its faculty and students. The “and innovation” part of the title is new for a position that previously focused only on research.
University officials often have noted that much of the experimentation undertaken in its labs is basic research that’s far removed from potential commercial applications.
Gautam, however, says a primary mission of land-grant universities such as UNR is discovery of ways that people can live better — a mission that includes commercial applications of laboratory research.
“Land-grant institutions give back,” he says.
Although innovation often is a slippery concept, Gautam defines it as the process of putting ideas to work.
Researchers aren’t always innovators because they may be more interested in the ideas than the application, the UNR vice president notes. And entrepreneurs aren’t always innovators because they are focused on the ways an idea can be applied in the market and pay less attention to the idea itself.
“Innovation is not about the end game,” Gautam says. “It’s about creating the right atmosphere, the right conditions.”
He plans to add a technology scout to his staff, a person who will visit UNR researchers, learn what they’re doing and think about potential commercial applications.
But he expects that innovation at UNR will be fueled even more by cross-disciplinary meetings to stir ideas. Political science professors who understand changing water-pollution regulations, for instance, might be brought together with hydrologists and engineering professors who are conducting research about water measurement.
“That’s where we can spawn ideas,” says Gautam. “That’s how innovation really occurs.”
His approach — building teams across academic disciplines and funding sources — proved successful in his previous job at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W. Va., where he worked as associate vice president for research and vice president of the West Virginia University Research Corporation.
In that job, he worked closely with economic development and job-training agencies.
He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering from universities in India, and joined West Virginia University in 1988 as an assistant professor in its department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. He was promoted to full professor in 1999.
Gautam succeeds Marsha Read, who has served both as vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at UNR since 2008. She continues as dean of the graduate school.
Gov. Steve Sisolak made it clear Wednesday night his latest directive urging as many Nevadans as can to stay home is not martial law but a plea for everyone not in a critical, essential industry to not go out and possibly spread the coronavirus.