On Robert Shelton’s first day as president of the University of Arizona, he placed a foot squarely on Arizona State University’s turf.
During a July 3 interview with Tucson’s public television station, Shelton argued that more UA professors and researchers need to shift their ideas from the lab to the marketplace, adding products and energy to the state economy
That shift, called “technology transfer,” is the centerpiece of ASU President Michael Crow’s drive to reshape the Tempe-based university — UA’s longtime archrival — into a top-level research institution that spurs a great deal of economic development across the Valley.
It’s also a mutual interest and drive that promises to bring the rivals together.
Rather than compete, Shelton and Crow — friends since they were colleagues at Iowa State University in the early 1980s — plan to become hightech collaborators.
Crow contends that Arizona’s universities need to band together to overcome being underpowered, generating too few products and spin-off companies that lure hightechnology jobs.
Other states, particularly California, are already leaps and bounds ahead of Arizona in converting research into tangible entities.
California has “eight major research universities. Of those, probably seven of them are bigger than even the UA in terms of research,” Crow said. “A couple of them are bigger than the UA and ASU together.”
In 2003, ASU created Arizona Technology Enterprises to spin off companies, and now space has been cleared for several technology transfer departments at the $300-million SkySong research center in Scottsdale.
While UA has an office developing faculty products and companies, it has not matched ASU’s effort. Under Shelton, that is expected to change.
Shelton said the universities should seek to strengthen each other. He points to his time as provost at the University of North Carolina for an example of the relationships that can be built.
Shelton helped recruit faculty with its nearby adversary, Duke University, and oversaw creation of a college with North Carolina State University.
He dismissed rivalries as the stuff of athletics, not academics, and certainly not business.
When UNC decided it was time to build a biomedical engineering program, Shelton said the university found itself ill-equipped. It boasts an impressive medical school but lacked the engineering school — but North Carolina State has one.
Rather than start from scratch, Shelton and his colleagues decided to reach out to their rival and formed a combined program.
“If you’re a professor of biomedical engineering, you’re a professor at both UNC and NC State. If you’re a student, your degree will have both universities’ names on it,” said Mark Crowell, director of technology transfer at UNC.
Such mergers are rare because university faculty and administrators are hesitant to surrender their turf, Crowell said.
But in Arizona, distance —rather than turf wars — is more likely to plague a technology-transfer merger between UA and ASU, said Stephen O’Neil, head of special programs for UA’s Office of Technology Transfer.
“Tech transfer tends to be in the trenches, so to speak, working directly with inventors locally,” O’Neil said.
ASU and UA are building a medical school together in downtown Phoenix, with both universities crafting the curriculum and contributing faculty. But it will be run by UA and is officially an extension of the Tucson campus.
Peter Slate, president of Arizona Technology Enterprises at ASU, said his technology transfer office already collaborates with other colleges, such as the University of Michigan, though not UA. Slate said he regularly talks with his counterparts at UA about what each office is working on.
Shelton said that, if possible, the universities should do more than just collaborate with each other.
At one point during Shelton’s tenure at UNC, he was meeting with Duke officials and was told they were attempting to lure a researcher whose wife, also a professor, would need a job. “We got a terrific woman in Colonial American History whose spouse was being hired by Duke. And for the first three years, Duke paid her salary,” he said.
Joint recruiting is a foreign concept to Arizona’s universities and, again, would be difficult to mimic because of the 100 miles between ASU and UA.
But Shelton is undaunted.
“I don’t know how that would work because of the distance, but I’d be willing to do it,” he said. “The goal is to keep talented people in our region. And if you can lock two people in that are happy with jobs, it’s much harder to recruit them away.”
Shelton, a physics professor before stepping into administration, was hired on the belief that he would more than sustain UA’s massive research operation, said Dennis DeConcini, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents and former U.S. Senator. No concerns have arisen among the regents that ASU and UA might overlap or compete unnecessarily.
“Right now, at least, there’s no contradiction. Maybe four or five years from now if we find a lot of duplication and some merging and integration, that may be something that has to be addressed,” DeConcini said.