SFAz leaders strive to preserve, advance state’s research-driven economy (Part II)

November 6, 2009

By hammersmith

Part II: The Creation of SFAz

(Back to: Part I)

Backers of the new organization returned from a visit to Ireland convinced that SFI was the model for what would be built in Arizona. State lawmakers seemed open to the idea, and in January 2006, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano articulated her support by making “Innovation Arizona” a central facet of her State of the State address. Days later, the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust announced that it would dedicate $50 million to recruit to Arizona 10 top researchers in personalized medicine

In February 2006, articles of incorporation were filed to create Science Foundation Arizona. Simultaneously, philanthropist Jerry Bisgrove pledged $100 million over four years to match an anticipated investment from the Arizona Legislature. (Ultimately, Bisgrove would donate $25 million to match state funding for SFAz.) As Budinger explained in an Arizona Republic op-ed article, the three CEO groups would bear all operational costs for the organization. Industry partners would match grants to leverage state appropriations even more, with Arizona citizens benefiting most.

“The day will come when families will no longer need to travel across the county to receive the best medical care for a life-threatening illness or a devastating childhood disorder,” Budinger wrote in the Republic piece. “The most talented physicians, scientists, and clinicians will be those we’ve attracted to Arizona and those we’ve educated and developed ourselves.”

Budinger, Silverman, and others had made the decision to pursue Dr. Harris to head SFAz, even though he had already been announced as the choice for a top-level administrative post at a California university. They believed it was crucial for SFAz to be under the direction of the most capable and experienced individual possible.

“CEOs think in terms of leadership,” Budinger says. “With Bill, we would hit the ground with a team that knew how to do it.”

“I knew I had helped build something unique in Ireland,” Dr. Harris says. “I looked at Arizona, and I thought this would be another unique challenge, one that could help not only the state, but the entire nation.”

Dr. Harris was hired as the founding president and CEO of SFAz in March 2006.

Bill Harris

More than four decades before he was the inaugural director of SFAz, Dr. Harris was the first member of his family to go to college. He attended the College of William & Mary in Virginia, then earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of South Carolina and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.

After holding a tenured professorship in chemistry at Furman University, Dr. Harris worked in the mathematical and physical sciences directorate of the National Science Foundation for 17 years. From 1991 to 1996, he was director of the directorate, overseeing a $750 million portfolio of research-grant appropriations.

More importantly, in terms of his preparation to lead SFAz, Dr. Harris also developed the NSF’s Science and Technology Center program, overseeing the creation of 25 interdisciplinary, multi-university research consortia, and he helped to establish the Research Experience for Undergraduates program of the NSF Social Sciences Directorate.

From 1996 to 2000, Dr. Harris led Columbia University’s oversight of Biosphere 2–his first exposure to Arizona. He then returned briefly to the University of South Carolina, where he served as vice president for research and professor of chemistry.

During the five years Dr. Harris served as director general for Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish government made major funding investments to support strategic research in the bioscience and ICT sectors. It invested $1 billion in SFI’s Technology Foresight Fund, including $798 million to support a rapid recruitment of new scientists. At the same time that SFI announced Dr. Harris’s appointment, it announced an initial $62 million round of grants to strengthen the country’s biotech and ICT clusters.

According to Dr. Harris, though, while public-sector financing was essential to jumpstarting the Irish enterprise, nearly as important were the collaborations that were being established–between researchers at separate institutions, between institutions and industry partners, and between SFI and the reviewers and advisers recruited to assess research proposals and help steer the foundation’s investments. He began applying the lessons of his experience at SFI as soon as he returned to Arizona.

“Hard-nosed advice in the best interest of the state”

“The original plan for SFAz was to have a politically based board,” Dr. Harris says, describing a scenario where perhaps the Arizona governor would appoint a board of directors that would be confirmed by the Legislature.

“I said that might be the wrong way to go if we actually wanted to avert political and community pressure and get the science right,” Dr. Harris says. “What if, instead, we could have a board with truly accomplished researchers and innovators, people who could give hard-nosed advice in the best interest of the state?”

The individuals Dr. Harris recruited to the SFAz board of directors dramatically strengthened its credibility in the research and industry communities, within Arizona and beyond. The Arizonans on the 11-member board are Craig Barrett, chairman of the board at Intel Corp.; Budinger; Dr. Harris; Gary Jones, chairman of the board at geophysical/geological technologies firms ARKeX Ltd. and Ingrain Inc.; and Robert Millis, emeritus director of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Board representatives from out of state include Erich Bloch, director of the Washington Advisory Group and former director of the NSF; Leroy Hood, president of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology; Anita Jones, engineering professor at the University of Virginia and a former director of defense research and engineering for the Department of Defense; Ira Levin, deputy director of intramural research and head of the Molecular and Biophysics Research Section at NIH; Frank McCabe, retired general manager and vice president of technology and manufacturing for Intel Ireland; and Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California’s Biotechnology Research and Education Program.

“Here you have people who understand the implications of competitive business environments and the importance of building human capital,” Dr. Harris says. “You have wise and thoughtful people with knowledge of industry, people with passion for research and education. You have someone who turned down a $100,000 private-sector board appointment to serve on SFAz’s board. You have, in Dr. Newell-McGloughlin, the person running the largest academic biotech program in the country.”

Dr. Harris argues that the capability to serve as a bridge builder and a catalyst–to introduce researchers to appropriate industry collaborators, to inform out-of-state investors about Arizona’s areas of expertise, to gather diverse constituencies to make more competitive pitches for resources–is one of the most important assets that Arizona gained with the creation of SFAz.

“We knew coming in that the model we built and refined in Ireland could be built and adjusted here to get greater value for the money invested,” Dr. Harris says. “We created a tool for Arizona to use–if it chooses–to make great things happen with public-private partnerships.”

He describes a recent instance, when he was speaking with executives at an aerospace company that was considering moving its fuel-cell research operation out of the state. The research expertise that the firm believed Arizona lacked, Dr. Harris realized, was in fact here in abundance. But connections hadn’t been made.

“I introduced their leadership to some administrators and researchers at ASU and they pulled in some of the right engineers,” Dr. Harris recounts. “Research is a risk. Companies like this are trying to reduce their risk by relying on the people they know, which is understandable.

“In this case,” he adds, “now we have a whole proposal underway to develop fuel cells.”

Similar successes have happened in other fields, including low-impact mining, where SFAz helped to foster a relationship between numerous companies and the University of Arizona. Dr. Harris says that such relationship-building is one of the best ways SFAz can help to fast-track Arizona toward having an economy driven by research and entrepreneurship.

“We need to make sure that we have deep roots here, that we establish an ecosystem of innovation akin to Boston or Silicon Valley,” he says. “It will take at least 5 to 10 more years to create the culture and diversify our industry base. What we’re doing now will help to create the competitive advantage you need in bio.”

“Is there some natural way this kind of thing happens, or do caring, thoughtful people work very, very hard to make it happen?” Budinger asks. As a parallel, he cites the public-sector wrangling and private-sector leadership that led to creation of the Central Arizona Project, the enormous endeavor that ultimately brought Colorado River water to Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties.

“It doesn’t just happen automatically,” he concludes.

Next: Part III: SFAz’s Report Card

(Back to: Part I)

For more information:

The struggle to save Arizona’s science push,” Arizona Republic, 10/02/2009

SFAZ Return on Investment,” Battelle Performance Report, 07/08/2009

Winning in the Global Knowledge-Based Economy,” Battelle Performance Report, 02/2009

Science Foundation Arizona chief works to create an innovative future,” Phoenix Business Journal, 01/04/2008

Science Foundation Arizona is born,” Arizona Republic, 02/26/2006

$85 million funds set up for schools,” Arizona Republic, 12/12/2002

Irish Betting on Biotech,” Wired, 12/05/2001

Ready, Aim, Focus,” Inc., 03/01/1997