CEO Spotlight: John Bardo

Story by Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography by Kacy Meinecke

Editor’s Note: CEO Spotlight is a reccuring monthly feature on CEOs, presidents and business owners in the Wichita area.

   Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus is getting noticed. Noticed by national media like The New York Times, which last fall featured the venture in a story about U.S. universities that are creating new places and buildings to inspire innovation and encourage interactions between industry and education. Noticed by financial experts who say it’s helping keep the Wichita economy on track. Noticed by companies who want to be part of something new. 
    The Times article called WSU’s Innovation Campus the ‘brainchild” of John Bardo, who became the university’s president in 2012. As soon as he became president, Bardo was publicly talking about the quality of research, learning and innovation that was happening on the campus he was already familiar with. Bardo’s first faculty position after earning a doctorate from The Ohio State University in 1973 was at WSU. He met his wife, Deborah, a Wichita native, in WSU’s Neff Hall.
    As a sociologist, Bardo had researched for years how economies recover and how factors like globalization, technology, and industry and academic partnerships can impact an economy. During his 16-year tenure as chancellor of Western Carolina University, he saw how another public North Carolina university – North Carolina State University – created a research and education park called Centennial Campus through public/private partnerships, grant funding, fundraising and other revenue streams.
    Now, WSU has a similar park, the Innovation Campus, which officially opened this year when Airbus moved its Wichita operations into the first of the campus’ eight planned partnership buildings. Those are buildings occupied by businesses or organizations that agree to work with WSU to offer research and student learning opportunities. 
    The first of two planned academic buildings opened shortly afterward. The Experiential Engineering Building houses 25 laboratories, a community makerspace and has room for other ventures. 
    Then came a Starbucks store, the first of several planned retail and service developments. (It was coup to land Starbucks since some companies consider new locations based on its proximity to a Starbucks.) Applications are currently being taken for the new apartment complex set to open in August. The Law Enforcement Training Center, which will provide joint training space for city police officers and county deputies and room for WSU’s criminal justice program, is scheduled to open in January.
    Zoe Newton, chair of the Kansas Board of Regents, said “that spirit of thinking outside the box” happening at WSU, as well as at Kansas’ other five universities in different ways, is important.
    Bardo cited a recent Wells Fargo report that gives credit to investments made in the Innovation Campus – along with investments in downtown Wichita – as helping equalize Wichita’s economy after a lackluster performance by Wichita’s aviation sector.
    While Bardo gets credit for setting the strategy to create the Innovation Campus, there’s another person on campus who’s tasked with implementing the ideas and looking out for WSU’s interests.
    As WSU’s vice president for research and technology transfer, John Tomblin is the go-to guy for companies who want to talk about locating on the university’s new Innovation Campus, which is situated on 120 acres of what had been WSU’s longtime Braeburn Golf Course.
    Almost daily calls have become par for the course for Tomblin. It’s pretty much a no-brainer for companies who claim to be innovative to want to be part of a new happening place that’s getting noticed by national media and industry experts.
    “But it’s really about getting the right fit,” said Tomblin. “Just wanting to be on the university campus because it’s cool is not the right fit.” 
    In order to get a coveted spot on the campus, companies have to provide applied learning opportunities for faculty and students – through research, internships or other such endeavors. Some companies have been turned away, Bardo and Tomblin said, because they can’t provide those opportunities.
    Tomblin understands the great things that can happen in a lab, the importance of developing industry relationships and the opportunities to put WSU on the map. He’s done all of that since joining the WSU faculty in 1994, earning a stellar reputation as a teacher and researcher on composites and advanced materials. Since he became the executive director of WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research in 2000, NIAR has doubled its funding and expanded its reputation for outstanding research.
    With the Innovation Campus, WSU is positioning itself as a model of how urban-based research universities should be focused on creating applied learning opportunities, being “a dominant player” in local, regional and state economies, and improving a community’s quality of life, Bardo said.
    “WSU is in a transition period of becoming a modern research university,” Tomblin agreed. 
    That means creating opportunities to learn, work, live and play, he said. 
    And continuing to do the kinds of things that get you noticed.