Scott Hinton discusses role as USU Research Foundation president

By Kevin Opsahl
The Herald Journal
Friday, October 17, 2014

Utah State Research Foundation president Scott Hinton talks with an engineer at Space Dynamics Lab about camera components for a space telescope last week in North Logan.
(John Zsiray/Herald Journal)

Utah State University Research Foundation president Scott Hinton grew up in the era when space exploration in the U.S. was just taking off. He can remember waking up at 3 a.m. to watch Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program led by NASA. Later, he watched John Glenn become the first American to reach orbit.

“I was part of that generation that thought science and technology was just so neat,” Hinton recalled in a recent interview with The Herald Journal, a year after taking the helm of the nonprofit research organization owned by USU. “I can remember as a young kid always wanting to be an engineer.”

But in 1992, Hinton transitioned to academia, serving at McGill University, University of Colorado at Boulder, and then the University of Kansas. In 2002, Hinton accepted the position of dean in USU’s College of Engineering. Hinton replaced Doug Lemon as USURF president in August of last year. Now he oversees the nonprofit entity of 500 employees, the chief unit being the Space Dynamics Lab — charged with creating data-collecting applications, including small satellites, in the military and science arenas. USURF is housed at the Innovation Campus. Hinton sat down with the paper in his office to discuss his vision for USURF and the organization’s future.

"The thermal links that Space Dynamics Lab shipped to NASA Goddard will be integrated and assembled onto the observatory in the coming weeks and months as it prepares for launch into outer space," said Hancock. "And the James Web Space Telescope is preparing for launch in the 2018 time frame."

Many countries and college campuses across the United States have taken part in the development of the heat-deflecting "links", which provide a continuous path of conduction from the high temperature interior to the cold of space.

"Q: I think many people are aware of USU’s research, but do you think it’s an ongoing effort on the part of the Research Foundation to tell your story?

A: (Laughs) My neighbors would ask, “You got a new job, didn’t you?” I’d say, “Yeah, I’m president of the USU Research Foundation.” After a while, I’d say, “I run Space Dynamics Lab,” because everyone knows what Space Dynamics Lab is. They have done projects that have really caught the imagination of the public. Nobody really knows what the Research Foundation is. And I thought over the last year, “Do we really need to try to market this?” And, I think, in time, if we get (more) units and we start to broaden out a little bit more, then I think that will the time to say, “This is the Research Foundation; this is what we do.” But we haven’t done that yet. And again, I think most of that is (because) I’ve been trying to push SDL. Everyone here says “USURF” — but I’ve been trying to get everyone to say “Research Foundation” instead of an acronym that no one knows what it means.

Q: Can you talk about some projects that are coming out of SDL right now?

A: It’s a NASA project. We are building three cameras and some electronics (to) send that satellite to an asteroid, where it will orbit around and collect data; then it is actually going to land on it to scoop up some the dirt and come back and land in Utah. Right now we’re getting the hardware and everything ready for that 2016 launch. To me, that’s really exciting. (Another project is) ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer) — a satellite that measures the ionosphere (part of the upper atmosphere) and trying to figure out, if there’s a storm on Earth, what does it do to the ionosphere. The reason that’s important is we’ve got satellites up there, and the storms here on Earth affect the satellite and it could knock out GPS. There are a lot of interesting issues there, but most of it is trying to understand our weather here and how it impacts space weather. SDL is providing two subsystem cameras to this spacecraft.

Q: When we last spoke, you said of the dean’s job: “It’s a 24-hour position, and if you do it right, it becomes your life.” Is that true for this job?

A: Any time you’re a dean or the president of a company, it really is a 24/7 job. There’s always something going on. I’ll get here at about 6 in the morning, but you know that’s the excitement about these kinds of jobs, because they do become your life. You develop a real passion for what you’re doing ... Down here I’ve got roughly 500 employees that are doing an incredible job. I was a trustee (of the Research Foundation) — that was interesting because every quarter, I’d get a snapshot of what the foundation was doing. I knew what the foundation was doing; I knew what SDL was doing and the key players. Though as a Trustee, you were worried more about budgets than people. But it was different to come down here (as president) and see all of the details, and get more involved in the strategic planning and to get into people’s lives.

Q: So when you got into this job and saw what the foundation was really doing, what surprised you?

A: I spent a couple of days thinking: What’s really stuck out after being here a while? What really has blown me away — and I use that term because it really has blown me away — when I was a trustee, I thought (the foundation) was a business and you just had a standard business relationship with customers. But with SDL, the customers really respect us. We’re in their board rooms; we’re helping them develop their strategic plans. As we’ve gone through a difficult year, when things get done, new opportunities pop up. It’s amazing. It filled me with a sense of pride.

Q: Describe how the year has been difficult.

A: You’ve heard about sequestration; they shut down the government; they didn’t have a budget for a while. Since we’re a trusted agent of the government, there were some times when they didn’t pay, so our organization just had to step up to deal with those concerns. But during that time, we made it through. Again, that’s because of the strength of the organization and our relationships.

Q: When Doug Lemon came in as president, he had the Energy Dynamics Lab here. It closed in 2012, so when you came in it was gone. What was it like for you to come into this job without that?

A: I think the way I look at this is this is a contract-research-development organization, and so we don’t get money from the state; we don’t have big pools of money like the university does. All the money we pay our employees has to come from the contracts we get. When you do something like EDL, which is very specialized ... those things just happen. As you follow contracts, you adapt your organization based on the contracts you get. This past year, my goal has been to build SDL; it has not been to try to do anything new — though I’m very open to opportunities, but we want to make sure if we do any reorganization that it makes sense. We’re not going to create something just for it to die a year from now. It’s easier for me, rather than having multiple units to manage.

Q: What are your thoughts on creating a good culture for employees?

A: Now, every president, when they come in, looks at a culture and say, “OK, I need to make a few changes based on my personality.” My personality’s a little different from Doug’s. I like to start meetings on time. I’m not as formal; I’m more of a jokester than Doug. It’s little things like that. Also, I see things a little differently than Doug with the technology (at USURF). He was a physicist; I was an electrical engineer. When I came into this job, I never felt that I had to do a major housecleaning. It was just coming in an adapting an organization a little bit more to my personality. When I became dean, it was the same thing. I never felt bad about the way things were when Doug was here. I just looked forward and said, “OK, I’m being held responsible here. How are we going to do it?”