NSHE Institutions DRI, UNLV to Partner on Regional Climate Innovation Consortium

National Science Foundation to establish a Regional Innovation Engine, a first-of-its-kind program to create focused research and technology transfer hubs.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a multi-institutional consortium – which includes NSHE institutions, UNLV and DRI – to confront the climate challenges facing the desert Southwest and spur economic development in the region.

The effects of climate change are acutely evident in the American West and Southwest, from the desertification of Utah’s Great Salt Lake to the record-breaking extreme heat in Arizona and the dwindling supply of the Colorado River reaching Nevada. NSF Engines: Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine (SWSIE) will use these challenges to catalyze economic opportunity.

Led by Arizona State University and supported by core academic partners from throughout the region, SWSIE aims to establish the Southwest as a leader in carbon capture, water security and renewable energy and bring high-wage industries to the region. SWSIE unites academic, community, nonprofit and industry partners across Arizona, Nevada and Utah who are committed to this goal.

“The NSF Regional Innovation Engines award offers a new transformative avenue to apply our holistic sustainability innovation approach to the southwestern United States to keep this region on a pathway of economic growth,” said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at ASU and principal investigator on this project. “The Southwest Sustainability Innovation Engine combines the extensive expertise of ASU and our partners to simultaneously ensure a sustainable future and prosperity for our region.”

SWSIE is among the first proposals selected by the NSF to establish a Regional Innovation Engine, a first-of-its-kind NSF program to create focused research and technology transfer hubs. The NSF will fund SWSIE’s initial development and growth with $15 million over the next two years. The engine can be renewed for up to 10 years with $160 million in funding available for each Regional Engine.

Strong partnerships for a shared future

Joining DRI, UNLV, and Arizona State University as core academic partners on the SWSIE team are the University of Utah, the Water Research Foundation, SciTech Institute and Maricopa Community Colleges.
“Big problems require bold solutions, and this consortium brings innovators from throughout the Southwest together to collaboratively and actively tackle the region’s most pressing water, energy, and related climate challenges,” said UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield. “The stakes are high, but this partnership allows the best and brightest academic minds to apply their collective skills and creatively find ways to secure a sustainable future.”

Both DRI and UNLV will serve as core academic partners on the project, leading and/or contributing to project management, innovation, workforce development, and community development teams.

“DRI looks forward to joining ASU, UNLV, and other partners to address the significant climate challenges impacting the Southwest while spurring innovation,” said DRI President Kumud Acharya. “DRI is honored to bring our experience in sustainable commercialization, workforce development, and community engagement practices to this transformative project.”

DRI’s long-term experience leading complex projects with academic, agency, and commercial partners will help drive solutions for water resources management and integrate with the expertise of other SWSIE partners. UNLV, through its Office of Economic Development, Research and Technology Park, and a host of academic units, will serve as a core site for technology transfer, commercialization, physical infrastructure (hi-tech labs, leasable space, co-working space), and workforce development.

In addition to the strengths of SWSIE’s core academic partners, the engine also combines expertise from more than 50 partners from industry, nonprofit organizations, and local governments.

Industry partners range from established companies with ambitious sustainability goals to businesses providing sustainability-based products and services, while municipal governments large and small, and nonprofit partners represent a variety of environmental interests across the Southwest. Nevada partners include Caesars Entertainment, Boyd Gaming, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, StartupNV, Switch, NV5, Impact NV, and more.

Fueling national leadership and regional growth

The Regional Innovation Engines program is overseen by the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships — the NSF’s first new directorate in more than 30 years — and is a new effort to establish regional economic, technological and societal leadership in areas highlighted in the “CHIPS and Science Act.”

NSF Engines are designed to assemble local and regional partners to rapidly develop and deploy solutions-inspired research and safeguard U.S. competitiveness in their respective focal areas. SWSIE is charged with pioneering advancements in water security, renewable energy and carbon neutrality — vital areas for sustainability in Utah, Nevada and Arizona.

“This partnership aligns leading research institutions and public/private partners around a shared vision to accelerate an already growing regional innovation ecosystem,” said Zachary Miles, UNLV senior associate vice president for economic development and the project’s workforce development lead. “Together with partners throughout Nevada and in Arizona and Utah, we’ll leverage our vast collective network of research, economic development and workforce partners to turn bright ideas into life-changing products and services.”

These co-developed solutions require new and revised skills to implement them. SWSIE will draw upon partners’ collective strengths to train that workforce. The engine will generate technical opportunities for the region, such as installing renewable energy systems, new water technologies and carbon capture infrastructure, as well as governmental and managerial positions focused on sustainability.

“DRI is eager to bring our recognized research expertise in sustainability issues related to water, energy, and carbon in Nevada and the Southwestern U.S. to the project,” said Sean McKenna, DRI executive director of hydrologic sciences and SWSIE co-innovation lead. “Our experience producing scientifically proven innovations to address real-world sustainability challenges through commercialization makes DRI well-poised to contribute solutions for the particular issues facing the region. The NSF’s new Regional Innovation Engine program is an exciting development for DRI scientists who excel at partnering with commercial, educational, and federal agencies to apply scientific expertise to support our communities.”

SWSIE’s work will involve not just transferring meaningful technology to market, but working with governments to ensure policy provides a fertile space for its use.

“We’re at a moment in the Southwest where the ongoing drought and unending heat we’re experiencing is focusing the minds of elected officials and stakeholders toward solutions,” said Scott Barclay, SWSIE chief operating officer and a professor with the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences in ASU’s New College. “And what SWSIE does is bring those actors directly into the conversation about what could work in their location, for their priorities, in a way that helps them transform the space.”