When Mike Witherell moved back to UC Santa Barbara in 2005 to become vice chancellor for research, he left behind a job running Illinois-based Fermilab, one of the world’s leading places for research into high energy physics.
Now, after helping to forge much closer ties between the university, corporate funders and spinoff companies, he’s moving to the Bay Area to take over another major research facility, the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.
The Berkeley lab is famous for creating many of the energy efficiency standards for appliances and electronic gear and the Energy Star ratings system. The lab made headlines in 2009 when Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, then director of the lab, was named Secretary of Energy by newly elected President Barack Obama.
In a phone conversation on Feb. 24, Witherell told me he wasn’t looking for a new assignment when he was asked if he was interested in applying for the position. “It’s a unique lab to run and the only one I’d be interested in running,” he said.
For the past few months, Witherell has had the daunting task of holding down his day job at UCSB and getting up to speed running a leading-edge research facility with a $750 million annual budget and a staff of roughly 4,000.
He officially leaves his post at UCSB on March 1 but will continue his work in Isla Vista on his own particle physics experiments with Professor Harry Nelson.
Witherell, who was a physics professor at UCSB from 1981-1999, told me he’s most proud of his work in bringing innovators and the university much closer together. He said a key ingredient was recruiting Sherylle Mills Englander to run the UCSB Office of Technology and Industry Alliances. “The office here was a startup of its own,” he said.
Witherell said one of the lessons he learned from UCSB was just how wide-ranging innovation is on the South Coast. His office was involved in subject areas as diverse as marine science, nanotechnology and advanced materials.
“The model that’s developed over the past 20 years or so is that every major research university has some amount of technology that’s been spun out locally,” he said. On the Central Coast, he said UCSB’s research into compound semiconductors has fostered a number of companies, including Transphorm as well as solid-state lighting company Soraa, a Central Coast Innovation Award winner for 2016. A large share of UCSB patents are in that space, he said, adding “twenty-five years ago, the university made a big bet and it’s paid off.”
He added that one of the unique aspects of the Central Coast is innovation in software that is not spun out from university research but relies heavily on university-produced talent to thrive. “It’s something that’s grown up organically,” he said, probably because the region is a great place to live and software developers can pretty much live anywhere.
At the Berkeley lab, Witherell will oversee experiments into energy technology, advanced computing, dark matter and the very nature of the universe.
But he said he’s optimistic about the future of innovation across the region. “We’ve gotten to a level where it is self-sustaining. There are enough people and enough innovation,” he said. Even in the area of venture capital, he said, the region has made strides in attracting funding from firms in the Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. He also said the region is rich in “senior intellectual capital,” retired executive or angel investors who are willing to get involved as mentors or technology management advisers.
After spending more than half his career at UCSB, Witherell said the bonds won’t easily be broken. “I’m not going away just because I’ve got a job in Berkeley,” he said.
I’d add a personal note that over the years, Mike and I have had a number of conversations about the innovation community on the Highway 101 corridor. Recently, Witherell’s support was key to getting off the ground the Central Coast Innovations Awards special report that’s part of the current issue of the Business Times. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from him and wish him the best in his new post at the Lawrence Berkeley lab.
• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]