Technological innovation is the following step in Las Vegas’ evolution

To woo the world back, Las Vegas is going to have to borrow and twist a phrase from Hamilton: We’re going to have to innovate our way out.

As a kid growing up in Las Vegas, I remember when my friends and I “graduated” from Disneyland to the wonders of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. It felt like a rite of passage, navigating its winding pathways and liberated teenagers while hopping on all of the “grown-up” rides.

Bo Bernhard, Executive Director of International Gaming Institute at UNLV's Harrah College of Hospitality poses for a photo Nov. 9, 2017.

Bo Bernhard, Executive Director of International Gaming Institute at UNLV’s Harrah College of Hospitality poses for a photo Nov. 9, 2017.

Every summer it seemed, Magic Mountain introduced a new roller coaster. My friends and I found this amazing—they’ve got a new ride at the amusement park, every year.

Years later, I realized that they built a new roller coaster at the amusement park because they had to build a new roller coaster at the amusement park—otherwise, the product stagnates and people stop coming to your amusement park.

Las Vegas is kind of the same way. We are the place where grown-ups “graduate” to play with all sorts of attractions, and if we stop introducing new rides at the amusement park each season, people stop coming from far away (after all, there are perfectly acceptable versions of casino theme parks everywhere nowadays).

This is especially true now, as the city faces its largest macroeconomic challenge yet: reinventing the product again for this period after the COVID darkness.

Fortunately, the city has a new innovation partner in its 35,000-resident city-within-a-city, UNLV. Just in time for the post-COVID “thaw,” the university is launching both an incubator and an accelerator, featuring facilities that look nothing like the classrooms you or I ever saw during our own school years.

Just down the road from campus, the UNLV Incubator (or “UNLV Inc”) is powered by the Hughes Center, boasting gorgeous new confines at the heart of the city’s finest business address. This 5,000-square-foot incubator features student and faculty startup offices opening out into collision spaces alongside some of the community’s top businesses, including Boeing, Las Vegas Sands and AFWERX (the innovation arm for our friends at Nellis Air Force Base, where, when I was a teenager, they unveiled the ultimate bat-wing innovation, the Stealth Fighter). It is difficult to overstate the importance of this ecosystemic creation, as unlike our famed neighbor cities in California, we simply do not have dozens of incubators—in fact, when UNLV’s opens this summer, it might be Las Vegas’ only official one.

Upon “graduating” from UNLV Inc, minds that heretofore never had a home for their ideas and companies can move their startups to an accelerator at the brand-new UNLV Black Fire Innovation hub at the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park, which serves as the heartbeat of a growing tech district in the southwest Valley. At Black Fire, companies like LG, Panasonic, Intel and Adobe work alongside some of our longest-standing local enterprises, like Caesars, creating a vibrant and growing community of teams working to invent the Next Cool Thing.

None of this was imaginable when I was young. I remember well when UNLV President Carol Harter was roundly mocked for suggesting that someday, UNLV should aspire to be at the level of a UCLA. Look at us now: In the official Carnegie research rankings, UNLV is in the same academic “top tier” as UCLA, making it the youngest university in American history to make the leap to the most prestigious status in the university world (if you consider, as I do, the university’s birthdate to be 1969, when the then-modest campus became its own autonomous university.)

The university now boasts spaces where innovators thrive, in a manner that is unapologetically outward-facing. Today, all of UNLV flourishes in much the same way that its No. 1-ranked College of Hospitality does: by insisting on community and industry engagement. You may already know the reason you hire a UNLV hotel grad rather than a Cornell one: The UNLV student will have graduated with 1,000 hours working in the trenches of industry (think about it, they are already one-tenth of the way to Malcolm Gladwell’s famed “10,000 hours” rule). But you probably are unaware that we are now building entire innovation ecosystems upon this “uniquely UNLV” foundation.

These spaces become homes to returning UNLV grads like Russ Logan, who left town upon graduation to hit Silicon Valley, as one too often does if you’re a computer science or engineering major. Today, Russ has brought his company, AI Foundation (motto: “Artificial Intelligence for Good”) to offices at Black Fire that simply did not exist when he first left town. Once you see his AI-driven celebrity app, you immediately imagine the potential for the Strip: You might walk into your hotel room and have a conversation with a totally-not-creepy Celine Dion, who happens to be performing downstairs. Or, if you’re like me, you dream of talking to Larry Johnson about the glory days of UNLV hoops—all on your phone, and all via AI technology.

This ecosytem also serves brilliant faculty minds like Ash Salamat. You may have missed it because of the vaccine news of late, but the second-biggest scientific achievement of our time just happened on Maryland Parkway. In a moment that achieved eminently Google-able notoriety, Salamat pulled off a scientific feat that Nobel Prize winners have declared perhaps the Last Great Discovery That Will Change Everything: room temperature superconducting, which allows energy to move from Point A to Point B without any energy loss. And he did so in a lab that tens of thousands of students and faculty walk by every day at UNLV. As Gov. Steve Sisolak said during his State of the State address, the Department of Energy has called this breakthrough “the ‘Holy Grail” of energy efficiency.” We now have an unprecedented opportunity to transform Las Vegas into an energy hub—making it radiant with a different kind of light, and sending that light out to a grateful planet.

This is the spirit of our yesterdays, packaged in a new innovation-focused today, for the amusement park riders of tomorrow.

Bo Bernhard is vice president of economic development at UNLV.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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