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NSF-funded, ASU-led sustainability, economic development initiative taps new CEO

ASU News

Some might look at the explosive growth of the desert Southwest, a region gripped by a decades-long drought and besieged by rising temperatures, as a testament to humanity’s hubris. For Brian Sherman, it’s evidence of our adaptability and capacity for problem-solving.

“Some argue the American Southwest is a place where humans are not ‘supposed’ to be living at scale, but we are — and we’re thriving,” says Sherman. “I think the challenges we’re facing here and the constraints around continued growth present an opportunity to harness natural systems and pivot that growth into something regenerative.”

Sherman brings that confidence to his new role as the chief executive officer of NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine, where he’s responsible for leading an interdisciplinary, multi-institution regional effort to address the sustainability challenges facing the desert Southwest through economic development. As CEO, Sherman will soon transition into the role of primary investigator, overseeing the many projects within this major NSF investment.

In January, the National Science Foundation funded the Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine, or SWSIE, as one of the first 10 Regional Innovation Engines. Led by Arizona State University, the initiative unites academic, community, nonprofit and industry partners across Arizona, Nevada and Utah to establish the Southwest as a leader in carbon capture, water security and renewable energy, and develop a workforce to support those high-wage industries.

With more than 20 years working in entrepreneurship, public-sector strategy, technology-based economic development and tech commercialization, Sherman aims to apply his experience to this effort and catalyze regional economic growth aligned with sustainability principles.

“I’m delighted to welcome Brian to the Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine,” said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of Global Futures at ASU and director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, who served as SWSIE’s interim CEO. “Brian’s extensive experience in economic development and technology commercialization will be instrumental in accelerating our mission to keep the Southwest of the United States a place where people and the economy can thrive in a future of rapid change.”

Sherman previously served in executive positions at the Arizona Technology Council, the town of Gilbert and the state of Arizona. Most recently, he was the chief innovation officer at the Arizona Commerce Authority.

Here, Sherman talks about why he joined ASU’s effort and his vision for SWSIE.

Question: Why did you decide to take on this role at SWSIE?

Answer: As an undergraduate student at ASU, I intended to build my career around what we now call sustainability. I didn’t find that pathway then, and instead spent close to 25 years in economic development. I’ve experienced firsthand the power of economic development and growth, and I believe that it’s mostly netted out positively in Arizona, a place I love, a place where I have raised a family.

But it hasn’t all been positive. Prosperity has been uneven and more of the same is not sustainable. Growth has been so extreme that in spite of really innovative and proactive planning around water, and very reliable and affordable energy, the scale of growth and climate change are pushing us up against natural constraints that require new thinking. I believe we can leverage new technology and policy innovations that are more inclusive for communities most at risk and harness the power of economic development into a new paradigm of investment that is regenerative.

With SWSIE, I now have the opportunity to narrow the economic development aperture to focus on areas that I have tremendous passion for — water innovation, energy transformation, reducing emissions and carbon capture, and workforce development in new, sustainable industries. These are the problems that we need to solve for the desert Southwest and the planet — and that is the most important, exciting work for me.

Q: Your previous role was the chief innovation officer at Arizona Commerce Authority — and now you’re joining the Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine. What does innovation mean to you?

A: At the Arizona Commerce Authority, innovation meant focusing on foundations that enable new technologies, new business models and transformational industries that drive economic growth. Foundational areas include a support system for early-stage ventures and building a vibrant startup community. It includes infrastructure of all kinds: digital infrastructure such as broadband for telemedicine, education and smart-city applications, and hard infrastructure for advanced transportation, water delivery and wastewater treatment, and low-carbon energy. Layered into all that is innovation in public policy and aligning political will at all levels of government to attract private investment in these areas.

Those same foundational areas will enable our work at SWSIE and inform and accelerate use-inspired research. SWSIE will stitch all these constituent parts together so they’re operating more efficiently and effectively, driven by the push of community and environmental needs and the pull of market demand. The Southwest is the ideal place and proving ground for energy, water and carbon innovation. This is ecosystem building, and I think in our case, innovation means transforming that ecosystem into a powerful engine.

Q: There are a lot of moving parts at SWSIE — three states and more than 50 partner institutions representing many different sectors, stakeholders and perspectives. That could very well create an environment full of constraints and competing priorities. How do you approach organizing those perspectives into a united effort?

A: Constraints provide focus. We are focused on environmental and economic threats in the desert Southwest, and we are aligned on creating solutions at the nexus of carbon, energy and water.

It’s important to bear in mind this is truly a regional initiative, and we have more in common in Arizona, Nevada and Utah than what separates us. The urgency of our common challenges and the opportunity it affords is what really brought SWSIE together.

I would say specific to my role as CEO, it’s really important to take all of this ambiguity and create clarity out of competing priorities and all the things we could do so everyone has a common vision and mission and understands their role.

Q: How do you think SWSIE can bolster workforce development and STEM education — especially regarding underrepresented communities in science and engineering?

A: I think one of the biggest opportunities we have regarding workforce development is to build on the workforce challenges we’ve addressed in advanced manufacturing. Great jobs go unfilled in manufacturing because of an antiquated notion that if you work in manufacturing, it’s because you couldn’t do something better. The SciTech Institute, one of SWSIE’s core partners, has done incredible work to dismantle that outdated idea. In Arizona, I think a lot of people vaguely understand that there’s semiconductor, aerospace and other high-tech manufacturing here, but they don’t really know the breadth of career pathways in these industries, or even what goes on in these huge facilities.

The annual SciTech Festival has opened the doors of these businesses and brought in parents, educators, and, most importantly, young students so people can see the breadth of careers enabled by STEM. There is so much job diversity in advanced manufacturing, from technicians to operators to engineers and everything in between, and so many learning pathways to these jobs.

In terms of inclusivity, SWSIE has a specific focus on creating opportunities for communities that have been historically left behind by technology innovation — or worse, marginalized. SWSIE will be judged by our ability to create inclusive access to these new opportunities and careers from the start. Building new industries from the ground up with that perspective in mind, I think is going to be really powerful.

Q: SWSIE is part of a program representing one of the largest federal investments ever in region-based tech leadership and economic development. As someone who’s built a career in tech commercialization and economic development, can you provide some context for this opportunity on a regional and national scale?

A: I see the NSF Regional Innovation Engines program defining and demonstrating the power and potential of use-inspired research harnessed to economic development. Basic research has fundamentally transformed the world, but by design is often conducted independently of real-world applications. With SWSIE we can intentionally curate an ecosystem designed to accelerate innovation to market in domains that are critical for the Southwest — namely carbon, energy and water. SWSIE and other NSF Engines are about ecosystem building and closing the loop between publicly funded research and private-sector investment to transform regional economies.

Q: What’s next for SWSIE?

A: I think to get the engine running — to really get that flywheel going — we need to continue building on the foundation of partners that initiated SWSIE and pay particular attention to building a value proposition to get private sector and corporate partners invested. The team is already hard at work building the startup infrastructure to engage individuals, communities and organizations who are defining and impacted most by sustainability challenges. As we mature the organization, we will increasingly engage corporate partners and investors seeking market solutions, and communities willing to spearhead carbon, energy and water solutions.

The intersection of private, public and academic perspectives is at the core of this initiative. Making sure innovators from each of these domains are represented and active participants in SWSIE at every level — that’s what will get this engine running.

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