"I’m the monkey in the middle,” Arizona State University Vice Provost Mitzi Montoya told me during a meeting break of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Arizona Advisory Committee.
“It’s my mission in life as a second (middle) child,” the Arizona State University dean of the College of Technology and Innovation explained.
“Oh, don’t write that down,” she protested.
Montoya’s goal “is to bring people together” and her playful self-analysis of her role and what drives her serves to make a point or two.
Just a year into her job at the ASU Polytechnic campus in east Mesa, Montoya can be increasingly found in the middle of conversations, local and statewide, about economic development, particularly conversations about the business of aerospace and defense.
At last Friday’s conference, the topic was unmanned aircraft systems — what most of us call drones — and how to position the state for a larger share of the growing drone pie.
To give you some perspective, there are 7,000 unmanned aircraft in the military’s aerial drone fleet, according to the New York Times, compared to 50 a decade ago.
Montoya had offered the conference her recommendations on first steps toward creating a “center of excellence” for drone testing in Arizona.
During the conference’s lunch break I watched her chat it up with Glenn Schrader, associate dean for research at the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering. and Ron Madler, dean of engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott campus.
It’s fair to ask whether that conversation would have taken place a year earlier.
That’s when she arrived from North Carolina State University where she had been working on research and marketing innovation in the university’s college of management.
Montoya boasts an intriguing combination of degrees that allows her to move easily between academic and business worlds. Her undergraduate degree is in engineering. Her doctorate is in marketing and statistics.
Not the kind of marketing designed to get inside consumers heads, but marketing in the sense of bringing new products to the marketplace. In other words, how you get something out of the laboratory and into production.
Montoya is insistent that her college’s role is to work, not on what she calls “vaporware,” but on solutions that businesses can use and products that the marketplace values.
“I’m a builder,” she told me in an earlier interview.
Building will have to be the topic for a future column. This one is focused on her role as the middle primate.
The first time I became aware of Montoya was in early February at the public roll-out of something called the Aerospace and Defense Research Collaboratory.
The collaboratory is run out of the ASU Polytechnic campus in partnership with the University of Arizona and Embry Riddle.
Its purpose, as one speaker put it, is to “team our best and brightest” to collaborate with the defense industry.
The collaborator, Montoya said, was “the first time the deans have ever been together.”
They’ve told her “no one (from ASU) has ever called us before.”
Montoya is the co-founder of the collaboratory but let others command the spotlight at the mid-winter event, so much so that I didn’t even mention her name in the column I did.
If you want to bring Arizona’s best and brightest together — if you want to be the person in the middle — it’s easier if you let others scramble to the top.
It’s not only academia and the defense industry coming together and taking notice of Montoya: A few weeks ago Gilbert Mayor John Lewis hosted a meeting of East Valley mayors and Montoya was the guest of honor.
Accolades are rolling in:
“Dr. Montoya is a terrific community partner,” said Lewis. “She understands the assets of the university and how to leverage those assets in assisting local businesses.”
“She is bright, energetic, creative, and anxious to help,” he added.
Her community partnership is evident in the relationship that has developed between Montoya and Mesa as the city has moved to take over the former Air Force Research Laboratory.
Montoya noted that she has hired five of the lab’s scientists who did not want to relocate with the lab at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Peter Sterling, the Mesa Chamber of Commerce’s new CEO, said this about Montoya:
“From the Chamber’s perspective, Mitzi brings together the language of academic research and the language of business in a way that will do nothing but good things for Mesa.
“We’re lucky to have her at ASU Poly. Poly is going to be a force.”
So what does this newcomer with experience in another collaboratory known as North Carolina’s Research Triangle think of our East Valley and of our state? Can we get it together? Can we compete effectively for aerospace and defense jobs and funding?
Montoya made no bold predictions, but offered a roadmap.
“There’s been a history of too much fighting,” she responded. “We have to partner. We have to think bigger. We have to think beyond our individual cities, our institutions and our state.”
Maybe even beyond our country.
On June 21, Aéro Montréal issued this statement:
“Aéro Montréal, the aerospace cluster of Québec, and the Aerospace & Defense Research Collaboratory, led by Arizona State University, signed a framework agreement on cooperation during the 49th International Paris Air Show.”
The statement included this quote from Montoya:
“The Aerospace and Defense Research Collaboratory is pleased to announce this collaborative agreement with Aéro Montréal. We are both committed to a collaborative approach and look forward to developing a close working relationship to the benefit of both our organizations.”
Big things are going on at ASU Poly, and Mitzi Montoya is in the middle of it all.
• Jim Ripley is the former executive editor of the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org