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My Thoughts: 'Impact Is The Story'

Zach Miles has supercharged UNLV's economic development programs. Here are his thoughts on hiring talent, measuring success, and taking advice.

Business and Community  |  Apr 26, 2016  |  By Cate Weeks
Zach Miles

Zach Miles at the Harry Reid Research Park. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Lucky for UNLV, Zach Miles can’t stomach blood and guts. His much older sister, a pediatric surgeon, had groomed him for medicine. He got a degree in microbiology but then passed out when dissecting animal models. A degree in patent law led to a career helping faculty and students commercialize their breakthroughs.

He is now UNLV's associate vice president for economic development and executive director of the UNLV Research Foundation. Since he joined UNLV in 2013, patent filings have gone up (from five the year before he got here to 47 last year) and he’s had a hand in three startup companies — the first ever to come directly from UNLV’s technology transfer program.

Here are his thoughts on hiring talent, measuring success, and taking advice.

Las Vegas is different. There’s not a lot of, “That’d be great if…” It’s, “That’d be great when…”

It doesn’t take much to get people to engage here. Once we’re past the what, no one gets hung up on the how.

Some people are impressed by dollar figures, but that’s not for me. Economic development is about telling the story.

The day you announce a $100 million deal and have the media cameras watching is awesome, but that’s just the beginning. Don’t get me wrong — that money matters tremendously to UNLV and the community — but I like to focus on the bigger picture of what it actually achieves — those impacts aren’t so easily tied to a dollar figure.

Impact is the story. Impact is where I focus the office. Did we bring new professors into the commercialization process? Did we help launch a new business? Did they hire our students? Is the partnership we started last year leading to something even more? I can give people all sorts of impressive figures, but if I can’t put them into the story, (the numbers) don’t have real impact.

Fortunately, UNLV has great stories. We are, literally, helping to cure cancer and prevent amputations in people with diabetes. One researcher has found an antibiotic-free way to improve the health of the chickens that will eventually be on your dinner plate.

I’m also executive director of the UNLV Research Foundation. It’s biggest project is developing our Harry Reid Research Park off the 215 beltway. We are in the process of finding a master developer. I’m so excited my head is spinning.

I see it as a melting pot for entrepreneurship and  translational research. It’s going to include a technology village, as it were, to help startups through an incubator and accelerator. It’ll house our offices and provide a public-private interface for UNLV and the community. I can’t wait to see the building go up. I can’t wait to walk into grand opening and watch the fireworks start happening.

Partnership can be an overused and abused word. You always come across people who will tell you what they think the university should be doing for them. That’s not partnership.

Partnership is when the goals and efforts on both sides align for greatest impact.

In building up this office, I’ve been very conscious about culture. When I hire, I look for how authentic the candidates’ answers are, how they respond to social cues. Do they try to impress more than they try to understand? I can train people for the job, but I can’t fix a bad fit.

UNLV can have its challenges given its nature as a state institution. We try to set expectations and be transparent about our process. It can be a long process, but that’s changing.

I’ve learned to undersell. If I tell a company it’ll take a week and a half to get signatures on something — even though I think it will take two days — we’re all happy when instead it takes three days. They’re like, “Great, thanks for pushing it through.”

Early in my career I was working with an attorney who wanted to license technology in the energy arena. He was the consummate salesman — had me convinced this was the best thing to happen to that university ever. I did some due diligence but not enough. Turned out he didn’t have enough money for his plans and, even worse, he was very litigious. He’s a reminder for any public entity not to give into business’s pressure to rush.

You have to take some bets on startups and student ideas, though. That’s when it comes back to talent and drive.

For young entrepreneurs, my best advice is on how to take advice: Remember, people who give you advice are not trying to insult you. If they’re bothering at all, it means they actually give a rip about what you’re doing. You don’t have to take it but you better be gracious.

The biggest piece of bunk is when someone tells you, “You haven’t put in enough time yet; wait your turn.” I don’t think age and experience necessarily factor into success.

Our economic development office wants to engage more actively with UNLV’s alumni. They can and do bring so much to the campus that we want to plug into that excitement and their expertise. We need them as a sounding board, we need them as experts in the industries we’re trying to impact.

I wish everyone could see UNLV through my eyes. I wish they could see the stories I do. More than anything, I wish they could feel what I do when someone says, “This would not have happened but for UNLV.”