ASU's innovations a key part of region's economic revival

July 16, 2015

Like the mythical bird it is named after, Phoenix is undergoing a rebirth, and Arizona State University is a key player in the economic redevelopment of the region.

ASU brings major strengths in innovation and research to the table: More than 80 companies have launched based on ASU innovations, and ASU spinouts and their sub-licensees have generated more than half a billion dollars in external funding. ASU assistant professor and Thync co-founder Jamie Tyler Download Full Image

Contributions like those are crucial to economic revial efforts, such as the recently launched Velocity initiative.

Velocity envisions the region achieving a higher level of economic competitiveness by becoming less focused on consumption industries and more focused on advanced fields, such as science and tech – which bring with them higher-paying jobs and an elevated city profile.

Enhancing the region’s entrepreneurship culture is crucial to those efforts.

ASU startups employ more than 350 people in Arizona alone. And a new report ranks ASU among the top 50 international universities for the number of patents issued to its researchers in 2014. 

“We aren’t new to the (entrepreneurship) game; we’ve been doing that,” Charlie Lewis, vice president of venture development at Arizona Technology Enterprises. “We’re just trying to accelerate it.”

Lewis says this approach is part of ASU President Michael M. Crow’s New American University model.

“The university plays a role that goes well beyond educating students; there’s a role we play in the community in a development standpoint,” Lewis said. “It’s a partnership with the community, with innovators, with entrepreneurs.”

The university’s innovative climate was a key part of what drew Jamie Tyler to join its faculty.

At ASU, he developed the idea that would later launch Thync, a wearable device that uses neurosignaling algorithms to optimize the wearer’s state of mind for energy and calm.

“ASU gave me a blank slate to do that,” said Tyler, associate professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, and co-founder and chief science officer at Thync. “They didn’t really care what I worked on, as long as I was productive.

“I really credit that to President Crow – it was obvious from when I arrived. It was kind of the Wild West of science and technology development. They couldn’t give you a free run forever, but they were willing to support a lot of out-of-the-box thinkers.”

Tyler sees a big opportunity for the Phoenix region to develop as a hub of technology and innovation, pointing to its history in those fields with companies such as GE and Motorola.

“There’s a lot of potential there, and ASU just fuels that,” he said. “They just provide a pipeline for talented individuals.”

One way in which the university is connecting to talented individuals in the community is through its new Startup Mill, which will provide Arizona-based entrepreneurs with the same acceleration services available to ASU students, faculty and post-doctoral researchers.

The regional Velocity plan, for which Crow serves as a committee member, is also focused on increasing workforce development in schools, from primary to post-secondary. ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering was specifically named as a part of that plan, developing it into a world-class teaching and research institution known for its expertise.

The Fulton Schools can play a very important role in the revitalization of Phoenix's economy, said Yong-Hang Zhang, associate dean for research at Fulton.

“The Fulton engineering school is positioned very well, not just with classroom learning, but also – we create a lot of new knowledge. So that’s why we can create a lot of new startups,” he said. “And because they commercialize our inventions, during that commercialization process students get additional education beyond the classroom. … We put it in real practice.”

Education and innovation are linked, said Tyler, who points out that most of the students he interacts with want to work for a startup.

“The real reason why you innovate is to try to educate,” he said. “At the core that’s what it’s all about.”

Penny Walker

Senior Editor, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


ASU life sciences professor wins national conservation award

July 17, 2015

For his lasting contribution to the conservation of mammals and their habitats, the American Society of Mammalogists has given the Aldo Leopold Award to Arizona State University professor Andrew Smith. The Aldo Leopold Award is named after an American scientist who is considered to be the “father” of wildlife ecology and management.

“I am deeply honored to receive the Leopold Conservation Award from the American Society of Mammalogists,” said Smith, a President’s and Parents Association Professor with the School of Life Sciences. “Aldo Leopold was a giant and everyone working in conservation today stands on his shoulders.” President's Professor Andrew Smith President's Professor Andrew Smith (right) with a Tibetan pastoralist whom Smith encountered regularly on his visits to China's Qinghai Province from 1990-2013. Photo by: Maxwell Wilson Download Full Image

Smith received the award for his decades of research in the behavioral ecology of mammals and the effects of habitat fragmentation and ecosystem services provided by small mammals. One of his more recent projects highlighted the importance of China’s Tibetan Plateau pika. He is also known for creating the School of Life Science’s Conservation Biology degree program, which is one of the first formal programs of its kind in the nation.

Found in parts of Asia, a pika is a small, rabbit-like mammal with short limbs, rounded ears and no external tail. According to Smith, the Chinese government has viewed the species as pests — frequently poisoning the population in hopes of extermination.

However, Smith’s research found that the pika is a keystone species in the area. Smith said their burrows lessen erosion and runoff created during summer monsoons. Areas where the pikas were poisoned saw much greater levels of damage related to flooding.

“In my teaching at ASU and in my research, I stress the importance of ‘getting it right’ — not letting preconceptions cloud one’s perspectives or the outcomes of conservation interventions,” Smith said. “I am proud of our work on the Tibetan plateau, where many of the management decisions made by higher authorities have been made in a vacuum, without the benefit of data or analyses of potential outcomes. And many of the resulting outcomes are proving to jeopardize not only the plateau’s unique biodiversity, but also the sustainability and livelihood of the people who have called the plateau home for thousands of years.”

Once Smith’s research papers circulated throughout China, his colleagues in the area helped educate the government about the importance of the pika. Smith said initial efforts to stop the poisoning campaigns have been effective.

Coincidentally, Smith is connected to Aldo Leopold through more than conservation biology. Aldo Leopold’s first son, A. Starker Leopold, taught Smith’s wildlife conservation class at the University of California. Smith even wrote his first research paper on the pika as a part of his class.

As part of winning this award, Smith will give the keynote speech during the 2016 American Society of Mammalogists’ annual meeting, where he also will be officially recognized for his accomplishments.

Jason Krell

Communication and events coordinator, Center for Evolution and Medicine