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Longtime UNLV Academic To Head Its Economic Development Effort

Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services

Bo Bernhard speaks at a 2019 gaming conference at Caesars Palace. He was just named head of economic development for UNLV.

At UNLV, Bo Bernhard has gone from casino chips to real money.

The head of the International Gaming Institute and longtime UNLV academic was just named interim associate vice president for economic development.

In that role, he will help monetize research conducted at UNLV, such as the recent breakthrough in room-temperature electrical superconducting, which promises to reduce power loss during electrical transmission.

Bernhard told KNPR's State of Nevada that the technology developed by UNLV physicist Ashkan Salamat and University of Rochester physicist Ranga Dias is the "holy grail" of physics.

“From business and economic perspectives, this has an opportunity to catapult Southern Nevada’s economic diversification,” he said.

Economic diversification is something the state has been pursuing for decades, but it has become more urgent after the devastating effects the pandemic has had on the Las Vegas' hospitality industry.

Bernhard explained that with room-temperature superconductivity the solar panels in Nevada could power New York City and could be a "powerhouse energy system" in the state.

“Things like that are going all the time down on Maryland Parkway,
 he said, "It’s just a matter of the ways in which it can be commercialized.”

He believes that innovation could change Las Vegas into a technology hub in energy transmission.

Bernhard compared the ideas coming out of UNLV to Gatorade. The sports drink started in the labs of the University of Florida, where scientists wanted to create a drink to keep their athletes stay better hydrated. 

The drink became a commercial success and funneled money into the university.

“This is something that happens at major research universities all over the country, all over the world, and what people may not be aware of is that UNLV became one of the youngest universities in American history to achieve Research One status,” he said.

Bernhard said since achieving that tier one status UNLV is shifting. An innovation or discovery that would not have been possible at the school 25 years ago is now happening "every week in different departments."

The room-temperature superconductor discovery will do more than potentially make Las Vegas a hub for energy technology. Bernhard believes it will help dispel some of the ideas about Las Vegas not being a place for scientific breakthroughs.  

“These are the kinds of transformations that lead to those transformations in public perception,” he said.

Another addition to the university that could help change people's perceptions of Las Vegas is the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park. The park is located in the southwest part of Las Vegas near Durango Drive and the southern beltway.

Bernhard said the tech park is like innovation parks set up by other universities. They are 50 percent academics from UNLV and 50 percent business and industry interests.

When an engineering student or team of students finished a final project, it had nowhere to go, he explained. Now, that project can be part of the tech park where companies like Zoom, Caesars Entertainment, Boyd Gaming, Intel and more have a presence. 

“You really create an effective sandbox for innovators to play,” Bernhard said.

The tech park environment allows cross-pollination of ideas and innovations, much like the environment in Silicone Valley. The park opened in February before the coronavirus pandemic took over, but Bernhard believes once the country emerges from the pandemic it will be an important part of Southern Nevada's future.

“This will be the innovation playground for Southern Nevada in a way that really nothing has been before,” he said.

And in Southern Nevada's most important industry, UNLV is already leading the way. 

Bernhard told State of Nevada that the university also stands poised to take advantage of the current mobile gaming boom through its app development program.

The Gaming Institute's Center of Gaming Innovation has the world's only program for gambling game design. People who have gone through the program hold more patents than the rest of the campus combine, Bernhard said.

“Those patents are all of the different kinds of technologies that feed sports betting and/or broader forms of gambling more generally,” he said.

Las Vegas-based casino giants Caesars Entertainment and MGM have recently invested billions in acquiring online bookmakers and developing mobile gaming products.

“If we don’t continue to be creative, it is like when Six Flags every summer would open a new roller coaster at the amusement park," he said, "You have got to keep producing more and more creative rides at the amusement park that is Las Vegas or else folks stop coming to the amusement park.”

In Las Vegas, it's not just about new games for gamblers. The new rides for the amusement park of Las Vegas can be anything that entices visitors. A few years ago it was nightclubs. Then casinos moved nightclubs to the pool and into the day time hours and called them dayclubs, Bernhard said. 

Bernhard’s promotion comes at a time when the Nevada economy has been hit hard by the pandemic. He said he agrees with new UNLV President Keith Whitfield that the university and its students should be more receptive to entrepreneurship as a career path until more traditional routes reopen.

President Whitfield said that the days of corporations coming to the campus and hiring thousands of students at once are likely gone for a while, which means students will need to consider becoming entrepreneurs.

Bernhard believes the generation of students at UNLV right now already understands how to be an entrepreneur.

“Providing and facility through the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park and Blackfire Innovation opportunities for those students to create their own path forward, in many cases, is an inspiring message at time when there aren’t a whole lot of inspiring messages out there, at least on the broad mass hiring front,” he said.

Bernhard fills a position most recently held by Zach Miles, who took a job last fall at Oklahoma State University. Bernhard will also remain head of the gaming institute.

Bo Bernhard, vice president of economic development, UNLV

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.