New Mexico Business Weekly's 2010 Power Book: Rainmakers

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, September 2010

 

Dr. Thomas Bowles

Science Advisor to Governor Bill Richardson

Dr. Thomas Bowles just had his neck brace removed. He was glued to the thing for the last three months after falling in Tunisia and fracturing his head. He and his wife had been vacationing in the African country, exploring Roman ruins, when Bowles climbed on top of one and toppled off. “I got carried away,” he says simply of the event. 

Getting carried away seems to be a theme for Bowles, but the habit usually better serves him. Bowles has worked as Gov. Bill Richardson’s science advisor since July 2006, coming to the position from Los Alamos National Labs, where he’s been for the last 31 years. His background is in nuclear and particle physics, but these days his work spans far beyond those fields. Bowles has been an integral part of economic development in the state and the way it relates to science and technology. And the efforts he’s been involved with over the last few years have created remarkable opportunities for New Mexico.

The crown jewel of Bowles’ work in the governor’s office is the Encanto supercomputer. With 14,000 computer processors making it tick, Encanto can perform 127 trillion calculations per second. In fact, Bowles says that what it takes the supercomputer one second to do would take a modern laptop a decade to finish. When it was completed in 2008, it was the third-fastest supercomputer in the world; it’s still the only supercomputer that isn’t solely available for government use.

It’s Encanto’s stunning capability that’s made it the centrifugal force in a number of statewide economic development projects. It’s been a giant boon to the digital film industry in New Mexico, especially as more movies go 3D, thereby requiring higher and higher levels of processing power. As a result of having the supercomputer, the state got DreamWorks to partner with its computer center. And with 20 gateway sites set up around the state, which allow people to tap into the supercomputer’s might, it means people don’t need to live in Albuquerque (or Hollywood) to work in digital film.

Also hooked into Encanto are a number of clean energy projects. Japan gave New Mexico $31 million to work on the development of smart grid technology, a sort of “intelligent” system that will allow people to monitor how much power they’re using in their homes or businesses. It will also be able to do things like tell people how much energy and money they can save by turning their thermostat down. And when connected to power systems that use some amount of alternative energy, it will help equalize power outputs so they aren’t jumping up and down every time the weather changes. Now in the design stage, Bowles predicts the technology will be ready to take to the commercial sector within about two years. 

And the list goes on: biotechnology projects that are sequencing genomes; research to grow algae fields in southern New Mexico, 100 square miles of which (2% of the state’s surface area) could produce enough energy to power the entire country; investments in nanotechnology that are creating ways to produce cheaper, more efficient solar panels and ways of combating cancer. 

Bowles believes all these endeavors will help bring high-paying jobs to the state, along with global attention. “There’s not a better place to be living in the world, in terms of science and technology, than New Mexico,” he says. And he’s the guy who would know. 

Bowles and his wife have traveled all over the world, from South Africa to Finland, Cambodia to Morocco, and most of the places in between. It’s the same curiosity and determination that drives him in his work that drives him to travel, and to become a fourth-degree black belt in tae kwon do (another skill he can tout on his résumé). They’re also two of the characteristics that made him part of the team to prove that neutrinos have mass in 1990, an accomplishment Bowles lists as his greatest triumph.

Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Fred Mondragón recognizes Bowles’ assets. “He’s one of the most intelligent and creative individuals I’ve ever met,” he says. “By taking his great knowledge and great intuition, he can translate these things into a vision, always keeping a goal in mind.” Mondragón says he knew as soon as he met Bowles when he began his post in 2008 that he was going to be an integral part of New Mexico’s economic future. “He has an insatiable capacity for work,” he says. “Sometimes I get e-mails from him at midnight, or on Sunday mornings. His mind and his stamina go around the clock. He’s always thinking about the next project.”

For once, Bowles isn’t entirely sure what the next project will be. His position is limited term, which means it ends when the governor’s does. And after just turning 60 this summer, he says it’s still too early to retire. But with whatever Bowles decides to do, he says he’ll stay involved in the projects he’s already invested so much in, and he’ll maintain his connections. 

It’s those connections that Bowles says are the secret to his successes. “The days when a single person can go off and invent something new and make a startling discovery are more limited,” he says. In the modern age, it oftentimes take many people collaborating across fields to get real results. “The really exciting stuff is at the intersection between different fields,” he says. “Slogging along with traditional approaches doesn’t get you far.”

 

Dr. Julia Fulghum

Vice President for Research and Economic Development at the University of New Mexico

Dr. Julia Fulghum has published 47 papers. She’s contributed to 96 international and national conference presentations. She’s got a master’s degree in analytical chemistry from Cornell and a Ph.D. in the same field from the University of North Carolina. And after 13 years teaching and researching at Kent State University in Ohio, in six short years she worked her way from being the department chair of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering at UNM to the university’s vice president for Research and Economic Development. But her biggest accomplishment? A class she taught right out of grad school.

Called “Chemistry In Our World,” it was a course targeted at non-science majors. When Fulghum took it on, only about 20 students a semester enrolled. But over three years, that number grew to a couple hundred. “It was my contribution to a scientifically literate society,” she says. Taking an introductory science course out of its perceived stodgy realm, she made the material current. Bringing newspaper articles and political cartoons to class, she’d discuss global warming, renewable energy and stem cell research, talking to students about how it impacted policy and how it impacted them. “It’s some of the most important teaching I’ve done,” she says, “because it took people fundamentally not interested in science and tried to get them interested enough and aware enough to make informed decisions.”

The real reason Fulghum calls it some of the work she’s most proud of is because she loves helping people. While she also cares deeply for the research she’s done (in understanding the chemistry of material surfaces), it’s when she talks about mentorship that sparks start to fly. It’s a good thing, because in her position, Fulghum is charged with the task of helping everyone.

Since taking on her current role two years ago, Fulghum has had to (temporarily, at least) give up teaching and doing her own research. Working a job that’s in essence closer to two or three jobs, she simply no longer has the time to do those things in the capacity in which she’d like. Instead, she oversees all research administration at the university, from learning about funding opportunities to helping faculty members apply for grants—and spend the money wisely and efficiently when they receive them. Fulghum’s also in charge of finding new ways to integrate research and education, and so all the big research centers on campus report back to her. “My job is to facilitate faculty-driven research and help faculty become known for excellent research,” she says. It’s a position that allows her to help not only her colleagues, but the university and, thereby, the entire state. 

That work is paying off. The research funding UNM received in FY10 is nearly 32 percent higher than it was in FY09. UNM was also able to take home $34 million in stimulus funding in research grants. And she just received word that the UNM-led DataONE project is be awarded a $20 million National Science Foundation grant. The goal of DataONE, which is being developed in collaboration with a number of other universities, is to develop a global data network that earth and environmental scientists can access. The NSF grant is to fund DataONE’s proposed Gulf Coast Oil Spill Biodiversity Tracker, which will analyze the effects of the spill on wildlife and the environment over time. 

Another part of Fulghum’s job is to work with science and technology corporations and help recruit high-tech companies to the area, and she was involved in bringing Fraunhofer, a solar panel company, to New Mexico. Also important to Fulghum is improving UNM’s relationship with Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs, which has been strained in the past. Neal Shinn, the user program and outreach manager at Sandia’s Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, says he’s already started to see a positive change in that relationship. “Like any big ship, it takes a while to turn it,” he says. “But Julia knows you build relationships at a person to person level.”

Shinn has known Fulghum for close to a decade, since before she came to New Mexico. They were both in technical leadership positions at AVS, a science and technology society. Shinn says he was thrilled when he learned Fulghum was moving to the state because he knew it would be “really wonderful for New Mexico.”

In her role as department chair at UNM, “she was just relentless in supporting the careers of early faculty members and researchers to make the department as good as it could be,” he says. And she possesses rare qualities that are needed in a good leader, like putting ideas and other people’s advancements before her own ego. “She’s looking for opportunities but not threatened by sharing them,” Shinn says. “She doesn’t need to be driving everything. It’s a really wonderful quality to have in a leader.”

It’s a trait that’s easily seen in Fulghum’s actions. She says she runs “a very flat office,” mostly without hierarchy, although she has no problem stepping in and making decisions. “But I want to empower people to do their jobs and enjoy them,” she adds. 

“She’s a great role model in many ways for many people,” says Shinn. “In science, they often point to big names and historic names—Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton. We need role models today. I put her in that group of people.”

 

Rhonda Dibachi

Co-founder, Senior Managing Director and CEO of Noribachi, LLC

Rhonda Dibachi and her husband Farzad retired at 40. They had climbed the ranks of the 1990s dot com boom in Silicon Valley, and after going public with their information technology firm Niku Corp. in 2000, they decided to do what anyone in their position likely would have: stop. 

The two traded in their busy schedules for a seven-week RV trip around the country. In the middle of it, they fell in love with New Mexico. But after a few years of rest and relaxation, they realized they were bored. So they moved to the state that had captured their attentions and decided to start fresh with a new business. And that’s when Noribachi was born. 

The Noribachi Group, LLC isn’t your average startup. It’s a private equity firm dedicated to developing other businesses in the CleanTech industry. Basically, it designs ways to integrate solar and clean energy into consumer products, and then it creates individual businesses around those ideas. In its measly three years in existence, Noribachi has already started and is in the process of building 10 CleanTech businesses, with offices in Albuquerque, San Francisco and Shanghai.

The products and businesses they’ve developed range in form and function. Visible Light Solar Technologies, along with its brand Qnuru, makes attractive, modern solar- and LED-powered lighting structures. Regen is a company that creates solar-powered personal and home electronics, like ReNu, a solar-powered iPhone/iPod charger that was featured on NBC’s “Today Show.” And Green by Design is a website that critiques the world of fashion and design and the way it relates to the environment, and it lists accessories, clothing, designers and stores that promote sustainability.

“Because it’s such a new field, there’s a lot of opportunity,” says Dibachi. It’s a new field for Dibachi and her husband, as well, but they recognize the need for clean technology at the consumer level and want to do their part. “My main drive in my businesses is to show people that they can have as much fun working as I do,” she says. “I’m giving people jobs, I’m giving people medical benefits, I’m giving people products that they love that save them time and money and make the world a better place. After we retired, we weren’t doing any of that. We thought to ourselves, This is fairly selfish of us.” And so they got back in the game.

Dibachi and her husband, who have been married 21 years, met while they were both working at GE at the beginning of their careers. They’ve owned businesses together since 1998, and Dibachi says she can’t imagine working without him. “I really do think [working with your spouse] is the natural way to do it,” she says. “We pair up biologically simply because that’s the way you do it. It’s an artificial idea to put a boundary between work life and home life.” 

She says her and her husband’s strengths are different. “He’s more creative than I am,” she says, “and I’m more process-oriented.” But their individual strengths complement each other and work toward a shared vision. It’s a theme that echoes throughout Dibachi’s companies and is especially present in her management style: Everyone understands their role. The one crucial ingredient to her success, she says, is having a defined business process and communicating it to her employees. “Unless you have those defined,” she says, “your people make them up as they go along. And then your organization is forced to relearn them over and over again.”

Dibachi and her husband even wrote a book about implementing business processes for people who don’t normally have them, called Just Add Management: Seven Steps to Creating a Productive Workplace and Motivating Your Employees In Challenging Times. The first step is ideation, she says, which sets hard deadlines that force people to come up with ideas. But the crucial companion to that step is follow-through. Even as her network of businesses grows, it’s a strategy she personally employs at each of them. “The culture comes from the top,” she says. “The person at the top is extremely important. If you just let it generate from the bottom, it morphs into corporate-y genericness. And you want people to take pride in their work.”

It’s a philosophy that’s paying off, according to Ed Romero. Romero served as the U.S. ambassador to Spain under Clinton, and now he’s a stockholder in Noribachi. He says a friend introduced him to the company within the last year, and he was instantly impressed. “Their professionalism, their goals, what they’ve done in the short time they’ve been here, they make a lot of sense,” he says, adding that he doesn’t normally invest in startups. “That company is going to be a very, very successful company ... not only in the state but in the country, in the world.”

The drive that propels Dibachi is twofold, she says: her husband, who’s taught her “to look forward as opposed to down at my desk,” and the pure and simple fact that she likes to get things done. “Some people are activity-based, some are goal-oriented,” she says. “I’m goal-oriented. I like all the things that we’ve done—the number of people that we’ve given jobs and benefits to, the products we made, the friendships we’ve made.”

Dibachi’s next goal? “To continue to show people we work with that we can do good things,” she says, “that we can make the world a better place.”