Innovation U; photos courtesy Arizona State University

Innovation U

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: January 2018
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According to U.S. News & World Report, Arizona State University is leading the nation in innovation – ahead of Stanford, MIT and every other U.S. institution of higher learning. Not bad for a former No. 1 “party school.”

In 2002, Playboy crowned Arizona State University the No. 1 party school in the nation.

In 2015, 2016 and 2017, U.S. News & World Report ranked ASU the No. 1 most innovative school in the nation. As radical transformations go, it beggars easy comparison – literary types might think of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, the pleasure-seeking party boy who ascends to world leadership as the illustrious King Henry.

It’s certainly been a remarkable turnaround for the 132-year-old institution – a more dramatic change, perhaps, than any American university has made in recent history.

The effects are rippling throughout the state. In 2016 alone, ASU made a $3.579 billion impact on Arizona’s economy and was responsible for 47,650 jobs. Thanks to a university-wide focus on generating ideas and solutions, every school is building an entrepreneurial workforce. ASU’s Origins Project and lectures with eminent thinkers offer unparalleled learning opportunities for the public.

Here, we explore how and why ASU has achieved its new distinction as America’s innovation epicenter, and what surprises are yet to come.


ASU president Michael Crow credits the No. 1 ranking to systemic changes in every aspect of the university.

100 new companies have been sparked by ASU innovations, garnering more than $650 million in outside funding.

NeoLight, which began as part of ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, develops medical devices to cure jaundice in newborns.

Breezing, based on tech developed at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, offers the world’s first portable device that tracks your metabolism and provides corresponding diet and exercise recommendations.

Zero Mass Water, started by ASU professor Cody Friesen, produces drinking water from solar panels.

EndoStim uses tech created by ASU engineering professor Bruce Towe to develop implantable devices to treat acid reflux, urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction with neurostimulation.


Inclusivity and Diversity
From 2002 to 2016, ASU saw big enrollment gains in disadvantaged populations:  

4x as many freshmen from families that earn $20,000 or less per year

3x as many freshmen from families that earn $20,000-$40,000

54 percent of full-time undergraduates receive some need-based financial aid

$10,823: Amount of the average need-based scholarship or grant. In-state tuition and fees for 2017-18 is $10,792. That’s about $800 higher than the national average for public four-year universities.

No.1: ASU is the top public university in the country for international student enrollment.


Solutions-Oriented Research

No. 1: ASU is the fastest growing research university in the country,
No. 10 in the nation for total research expenditures and…

No. 4 for interdisciplinary science research.


Prize-d Recruits
ASU’s faculty includes some of the top figures in science, art and journalism. Currently on staff:

5 Nobel laureates

6 Pulitzer Prize winners

3 MacArthur “genius” fellows

162 Fulbright American scholars


Gold Medal Training Ground
Thanks to its cutting-edge facilities and high-caliber coaches, ASU has become a training mecca for Olympians and top athletes.
Michael Phelps, the 28-time Olympic medalist, prepped for the 2016 Rio Games at ASU’s Mona Plummer Aquatic Center.

Three ASU coaches are former Olympians: swimmer Misty Hyman, diver Mark Bradshaw and wrestler Zeke Jones.

27 Sun Devils from 15 countries competed in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.


Interdisciplinary cooperation
20 transdisciplinary schools have been created by fusing various subjects together to solve global challenges.

Sources: ASU, U.S. News & World Report, College Board


ASU president Michael Crow
ASU president Michael Crow

Dr. Innovation
Typically, transformation results from numerous forces.
In ASU’s case, it was just one force of nature: president Michael Crow.

When ASU was hiring a president 15 years ago, most of the applicants fit the typical profile – status quo preserver. “Nearly everybody in this sector is fearful of change, so they worry a lot,” Crow says. “I’m like, ‘We’re past the time to worry. We have to act.’”

Crow wanted to replace every aspect of the university – culture, structure, incentives – with innovations and entrepreneurship. His vision was to smash the silos that separated traditional colleges and create interdisciplinary schools aimed at tackling society’s biggest challenges. He would pioneer a “New American University” defined by inclusivity, diversity and responsibility to the community and the country.

Then he shocked almost everybody by actually doing it. He continues to spearhead changes – building a medical campus at Mayo Clinic, constructing ASU’s largest research facility (focused on the food-water-energy nexus) and spreading his vision at schools from California to China. Talking to Crow today, it’s clear how he’s created such momentum. Ask him a question, and his answer is out of the gate like a racehorse, galloping with breakneck efficiency and nary a misstep, then screeching to a halt before winding up for the next one.

What was your motivation to break down traditional collegial walls and create interdisciplinary schools?
My main motivation was that universities, in order to be most useful and most impactful to society, had to be institutions capable of adaptation to the problems and challenges we face. And in general, universities were rigid, hard structures that didn’t change very easily. Sadly, we haven’t been able to address some of our most important problems like K-12 performance, or addiction in our society, or really complicated things in the environment, or economic competitiveness… because universities were not evolving in new directions.

Can you give an example of how you fused various subjects into an interdisciplinary school?
One is the School of Earth and Space Exploration. We were looking for more energy, more creativity, more students, more diversity in that area of science and technology. The traditional departments of geology and astronomy weren’t all that exciting to a lot of people. So we decided to build an intellectual theme around the idea of exploration. And lo and behold, that worked… A second place we’ve done that is with engineering, where we did away with all 11 of our traditional engineering departments and created Grand Challenge Engineering Schools… We went from 8,000 to 17,000 students on campus [and attracted] three times as many women and four times as many minorities to engineering.

Many universities believe that to be esteemed, they have to be exclusive. How are you striving for excellence and inclusivity?
We believe in [building] what I would call an elite performing faculty. Then, because we’re a public university and because we’re trying to advance the whole of society, [we] don’t limit access to that elite faculty only to the highest performing students from high school. Inclusivity means we admit every qualified student.

There are global trends moving in the opposite direction of what you’re doing at ASU: more isolation, more division, more exclusivity. How can ASU’s success at interdisciplinary cooperation be an inspiration to the world?
Change is the standard operating force at the moment… So we’ve decided to become an institution focused on building for the future and adapting to any of the changes that might come. There’s very little time for arguing… We have all these things we need to do to produce the most adaptive people, the most adaptive institutions, the most adaptive companies, the most adaptive governments to all the challenges we face.


Totally Original

Origins ProjectAbout a decade ago, a cultural Big Bang detonated on the campus of ASU, seeding the Valley with Nobel laureates, celebrity intellectuals and Hollywood stars. It’s called the Origins Project. This April 5-9, the organization will re-create that singularity with events celebrating its 10th anniversary. “We’re aiming huge,” says founder and director Lawrence Krauss. “Almost anyone you ever wanted to be there is going to be there.”

The Origins Project’s origin story begins in a place far, far away: Cleveland. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, had launched a cosmology program at Case Western Reserve University. “I started to realize that in all areas, the forefront questions have to do with origins,” he says. “And the key thing is that important questions require a transdisciplinary approach in the 21st century.”

Krauss wanted to start a project to address big-picture beginnings, but his university wasn’t keen. Then he met Michael Crow. The two realized they shared an interdisciplinary vision. Crow quickly greenlit the project. “It’s so typical of ASU,” Krauss says. “They basically said, with no negotiations, ‘What do you need to make this happen? We think it’s a good idea.’”

Since then, Origins has invited top-ranked thinkers for public talks on the origins of life, the universe, xenophobia and more. Krauss has held in-depth dialogues with Johnny Depp, Noam Chomsky and Alan Alda. Audiences packed Gammage to watch luminaries like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye weave scientific tales, and to hear ASU’s symphony perform Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” paired with NASA photos, Krauss’ narration and a lecture from Stephen Hawking. Origins also hosts multidisciplinary workshops that have sparked new realms of research and attracted Nobel laureates to ASU’s staff.

At April’s events, the tentative guest list includes Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, magician Penn Jillette, actor Stephen Fry, and novelists Cormac McCarthy and Ian McEwan. Talks may range from the origins of rock ’n’ roll to artificial intelligence to the future of democracy. “We hope,” Krauss says, “it’ll be a celebration of what we’ve done, an inspiration for how the world is evolving and progressing, and also a call for people to rely on reality for public policy and to be inspired by reality to do better things.” For more on the events, visit


LunaH-Map; Lunahmap rendering courtesy joe dubois/asu; mission exploration I
LunaH-Map; Lunahmap rendering courtesy joe dubois/asu; mission exploration I

One Giant Leap for a Shoebox
It sounds like an elevator pitch for a sci-fi series: Scientists are designing a shoebox-size spacecraft with solar panel wings to scout the Moon’s South Pole for ice that can be turned into rocket fuel on future deep space missions. But this is reality for LunaH-Map, ASU’s first exclusive NASA mission.

Principal investigator Craig Hardgrove was a mere postdoc when he proposed the plan. However, the planetary scientist says, “ASU is very inclusive and wants everybody to shoot for the moon.” Sometimes literally.

Previous missions have detected ice at the Moon’s poles, but flybys have been too far away to pinpoint the locations and amount. LunaH-Map will orbit 30,000 feet above the Moon, scanning craters with a neutron detector that reveals the presence of hydrogen, and therefore water. This is crucial because scientists can create combustion (read: rocket fuel) by splitting the H and O in H2O. So mapping potential sources could eventually enable spacecraft to use the Moon as a “gas station” on trips to, say, Mars and Europa.

To prepare for the 2019 launch, ASU’s team must contend with shoebox-size restrictions and a shoestring budget. “NASA has never needed radios and solar arrays and propulsion systems and computers to fit inside a shoebox before,” says Hardgrove, now an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “It’s a completely new type of mission for NASA. They’re not sure what to make of it. But they’re excited.”

Sat Stats:
Weight: 30 pounds

Length: 3.9" x × 7.9" x 11.8"

Hardware: LunaH-Map will employ 16 neutron detectors to find lunar hydrogen. Unlike most micro-sateliites, it will have its own propulsion system, necessary to acquire its desired orbit.

Blastoff: LunaH-Map will be one of 13 miniature “CubeSat” satellites to hitch a ride on Mission Exploration 1, an unmanned precursor to future NASA missions, possibly to Mars.

Transit: LunaH-Map and its fellow CubeSats will make a four-day journey to the Moon along the primary payload, a prototype of NASA’s Orion service module.

Mission: After leaving the mothership, LunaH-Map will conduct 140 low-altitude flybys of the Moon's hydrogen-rich South Pole. The small satellite will remain in orbit as the Orion spacecraft returns home.


Grande Latte Graduates
Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz had a problem. “Most of the [Starbucks employees] I’ve met either didn’t go to college because they couldn’t afford it or had to leave school because of indebtedness that did not allow them to move forward,” he announced in a video. “The question was: How do we solve it?”

The answer materialized when he met Michael Crow, and the two brewed up the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. The program, which began in 2014, offers part- or full-time Starbucks employees full tuition reimbursement to earn a bachelor’s degree online from ASU. More than 7,000 bachelor’s-seeking baristas nationwide are participating in the program, which was expected to graduate 1,000 students by the end of 2017.


Bio Dynamic

Qiang ChenLaunched in 2003, the Biodesign Institute was the nation’s first interdisciplinary institute devoted to developing nature-inspired, commercially viable innovations. In its first decade, it made a $1.5 billion impact on Arizona’s economy.

Tony Hu and Dali Sun 3-D printed an attachment that turns a smartphone camera into a microscope that allows health practitioners to diagnose infectious diseases. The device brings the cost of a powerful dark-field microscope down from $60,000 to $2,000.

Dr. Karen AndersonDr. Karen Anderson is working on a therapeutic breast cancer vaccine to reduce rates of recurrence. Stephen Johnston is shooting for a universally preventive cancer vaccine.

Alexander Green developed a $1 Zika diagnostic made of paper – a boon for people in mosquito-ridden rural areas who need an instant, accessible test. Qiang Chen created the world’s first plant-based Zika vaccine from tobacco leaves. It could prove stronger, safer and cheaper than any Zika vaccine to date.