Kennedy Nyairo, Ph.D.: "Taking Advantage of This Moment"

Feb. 16, 2021

Honoring Black History Month

Kennedy Nyairo

Kennedy Nyairo

Photo credit: Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona

We simply must have more people of color as researchers. We need to attract and recruit them here. We need to better communicate the opportunities and possibilities that exist here. We need to take advantage of this moment to invite the researchers who are here to come and talk to us.

 – Kennedy Nyairo, Tech Launch Arizona Senior Licensing Manager,
James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences

As senior licensing manager for the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences, Ken brings to Tech Launch Arizona more than 20 years of experience spanning business development, product and portfolio management, product and services marketing, technology commercialization and licensing, intellectual property management, R&D, private equity, and venture capital. He has worked with both public and private companies including Lucent Technologies, Intelsat, British Technology Group and others.

From IP (Intellectual Property) management and monetization to patent licensing to venture creation, Ken brings a full spectrum of experience to bear on working with UArizona optical sciences inventors to commercialize their discoveries.

Originally from Kenya, Ken’s life has taken him from Africa to Europe to the United States. He has a Ph.D. in optoelectronics from Cambridge University and an MBA in business strategy from Georgetown University.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Ken about his experience.

TLA: Your personal story is quite an adventure. Tell us about where you grew up and how you made your way to the United States.

KN: Yes, well it’s an interesting story! I grew up in Kenya and left Africa when I was 18 years old to study in Germany. I got a scholarship to study engineering there and stayed for 6 years. From there, I got another scholarship to study in Cambridge, England. So, I had this whole European experience studying electrical engineering and optical electronics. I then decided to combine engineering and business, so I applied to come to the U.S. to attend Georgetown University, that’s where I got my MBA.

After receiving my Ph.D. I went to AT&T Bell Labs. That was a very interesting experience for me because I was doing more marketing and product development. Bell Labs was extremely serious about inventing, and I saw how innovation really makes an impact, especially in the areas of wireless communications and fiber optics, which were emerging fields at that time.

From there, I got very excited and wanted to work in the area of intellectual property. That's how I ended up in technology commercialization. I'd been working in corporate America for a number of years, but not really in a university environment. So, when this opportunity came, I applied to TLA and here I am.

TLA:  What kinds of opportunities to you see being open to minorities and people of color through engaging in research and innovation?

KN: As I’ve worked to understand American history, why it's important, I’ve become specifically interested in that experience in the context of innovation and commercialization at the University of Arizona. Working here has given me a chance to understand the contributions of people of color in terms of creating innovations and how we can better help one another contribute more towards creating impact from technology innovation in the U.S.

One of the things that I’ve found most exciting is that black people have been in technology commercialization, research and creating innovations throughout our history. Many hold records in terms of the number of inventions they’ve created. So, it's not new, but frankly I think there must be ways we can involve more people so they don't feel marginalized. It's a question of engaging as many people as we can, telling stories about those who have achieved significant milestones and promoting more of their work. Maybe that's what we need to do.

TLA: Who do you think of as role models when we talk of great innovators in U.S. history?

KN: There are a number of people who I think of who really stand out. There’s Shirly Jackson who was at Bell Labs in the 1970s. She was a theoretical physicist who made contributions that advanced the field of semiconductors. She’s also amazing because she was more than a physicist and an inventor, she was a great philanthropist. There was also Lewis Latimer who worked at the U.S. Electric Lighting Company back in 1881. He patented a carbon filament for the lightbulb, making the invention more affordable for everyday people. He’s interesting, too, because he worked with Alexander Graham Bell and helped him design and draft the patents for the first telephone. I also think about Otis Boykin; he was an expert in resistors. He worked at IBM and is one of the people who made key improvements to the electronics in the pacemaker. And of course, there’s Lonnie Johnson, he’s a NASA engineer to this day. He was an engineer at JPL and worked on many missions, like the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Observer and the Cassini mission to Saturn.  There are so many! *

*Note: Lonnie Johnson has many inventions to his name but is arguably most famous for inventing the Super Soaker.

TLA: What do we need to do at the UArizona to engage more diverse populations in innovation, invention, and commercialization?

KN: There's so many ways we can do that. First, we simply must have more people of color as researchers in the university. We need to attract and recruit them here. We need to better communicate the opportunities and possibilities that exist here. We need to take advantage of this moment to invite the researchers who are here to come and talk to us.

I also think we need to elevate the people who are here as role models – faculty and researchers as well as students – and invite them to talk about their stories and experiences. It’s all about awareness. Many people simply don’t know how impactful African Americans have been in the technology history of our country. We need to tell those stories, like the inventors I talked about before. We need to hear from innovators about their work and their research.

TLA: Your work focuses on working with researchers and faculty at the Wyant College of Optical Sciences. What sets that environment apart aside from its academic focus?

KN: I happen to be in a very specific, unique college. It's a very international college. We have people from everywhere: China, Japan, India, the Middle East, and Europe. I think in our case, the college has actually done well in attracting people from all walks of life. While they've done well there, we need more people of color at the university in general. I think the university is taking the issue seriously, with its programs in diversity and inclusivity, and I think President Robbins and our senior vice president of research and innovation, Betsy Cantwell, are really determined to see this change happen.

Paul Tumarkin, Assistant Director, Marketing & Communications