A shortened version of our conversation with Dr. Sankovic can be found in the January/February 2021 edition of Ohio Matters. Read below for our full chat.
Dr. John M. Sankovic is the president and CEO of the Ohio Aerospace Institute and the chairman of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce’s new Innovation and Technology Committee. From working on jet propulsion at NASA to studying artificial hearts, join a conversation with the new chairman to learn more about him and his goals for the committee in the new year.
Q: You have an extensive educational background that lead you to work at NASA and OAI. Can you tell me more about your educational background?
A: I got my first degree is in capital engineering from the University of Akron, and just to note, all my degrees are from Ohio schools – born and bred Ohioan. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Akron, and I have a master’s and a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from Case Western Reserve University. I also have an MBA from Cleveland State University.
Q: Before OAI, you had a distinguished 31-year career at NASA. Tell me more about your time at NASA and your journey to Chief Technologist and Director of the Office of Technology there.
A: I started my early career in space propulsion. When you take a trip to space, you only get one tank of gas, so any satellites or spacecrafts that go to outer planets need a good propulsion system – that’s the work I did. I was fortunate early in my career to have one of the propulsion systems I worked on, go on to fly on several commercial communication satellites. That’s always really excited me – I liked that I could work on something, and then in the span of a few years, see it come out of the laboratory and into orbit and operational use.
After propulsion, I went back to get my doctoral degree and spent some time with the Cleveland Clinic, joined later with NASA, and worked on getting some of the technology that NASA developed into the health care area. My background throughout this was in fluids; so, seeing how things flow and understanding gases and liquids and how they behave in extreme environments. My doctorate was in artificial hearts and understanding how the blood flows, which may seem a lot different than a rocket engine, but it all comes back to how things move.
Then, I came back and ran the bioscience group at NASA. During this time, I worked on technologies that would improve pilot cognition and other astronaut health projects. Later, I moved into space power work, so working on rockets for deep space and their power systems. And eventually, I moved into management. I ran the office responsible for space station experiments in fluids and combustion – like understanding how things boil in space or how fire behaves in space and where to place a smoke detector in a spacecraft. Soon after this, it was a dream come true to become the chief technologist and be responsible for overall technology management. It was one of the most rewarding parts of my career there to have our tech transfer portfolio under me.
My big push during my time was to get the technologies, innovations and patents that had never been transferred or commercialized out into the world and commercialized – into the hands of entrepreneurs who could do more with the technology.
And then, I left. It was time for me to do something different – so now I’m here with the Ohio Aerospace Institute doing work that really excites me on technology-based economic development.
Q: Can you explain the Ohio Aerospace Institute more and its role in Ohio?
A: We were founded in 1989 when leaders in the state came together and wanted to recognize that Ohio has been a leader in aviation since the beginning – we have a lot of industry that dates back to the Wright Brothers. Ohio is the No. 1 supplier for Boeing, Airbus – we make all the parts, even the engines. So, Ohio Aerospace Institute was a way of tying all the pieces together, of government, academia and industry.
We work in three main areas: research and technology, industry and commercial. Within research and technology, we have smart people solving hard problems at NASA and the Air Force base – and then we also work on the education side too. At different times we’ve worked from K-12 to post-doctorate. Right now, we’re focused on undergraduate. We support scholarships and succeed in our diversity and recruitment metrics. On the industry side, we run consortia, with almost 50 consortia since our inception. And for commercial, we work directly with the aircraft industry. For example, we’ve had an aircraft manufacturer come to us for help with fire suppression systems, so we did consortia for them – bringing together companies that usually compete to solve a common problem that will help everyone. We also run an industry association for the state called the Ohio Aerospace Industry Association, which ties together companies that operate within Ohio.
Q: Can you elaborate on the importance of science and tech to Ohio’s economy, and how to get those in the next generation involved in this industry?
A: I can’t overstate how important science and technology is for the future of our economy. The industrialization of the state started near the Great Lake region, taking raw materials, and turning them into high-value products. However, we’ve seen a lot of these jobs leave the state. A lot of the latest high-tech waves have happened on the West Coast. As we’re looking into the next wave, you see things like autonomy, artificial intelligence, machine learning; all of these are critical. We’re a logistics state partially because of geographic location, but we must get ready for that next wave of tech.
We’ve also got to get our students at universities aligned with the things the industries need. In Ohio, we graduate about twice as many engineers as we currently retain and employ in the state. So, part of it, is we must create more jobs to retain these students. One of the key areas in high demand is computer science and software. We also have huge potential in the biomedical sciences. We do a great job of putting research into these areas, but we need to take that and see how we can turn it into creating product and investment here in the state.
Also, something I think is critical to keep students in Ohio is showing them they can succeed. A lot of students go off to places like California because of the fast-paced advancements; so, how do we get the capital and the acceleration of tech, that whole ecosystem, so that these students feel supported?
Q: So, you’re also the first chairperson for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce’s Innovation & Technology Committee. What are some of your goals for the coming year?
A: The thing that excites me the most, and what I really hope this committee can push forward, is taking the voice of industry and making direct recommendations to the Ohio legislature. Understand where the state is, and then use the Ohio Chamber’s Ohio BOLD: A Blueprint for Accelerating the Innovation Economy plan to make these recommendations.
One thing that’s killing us right now is regionalism in Ohio. Whenever I see a map of Ohio from government leaders, it’s chopped up into different pieces, and can sometimes make it seem like we’re competing against each other within the state, which is hurting us every time. With this committee, if we do nothing else, I want to come together as one state. I want to use this committee to bolster each other up and succeed as Ohio, not individual regions.
Q: Past or present, who would you add as a member to the new committee?
A: The Wright Brothers. They had so many people tell them flight was impossible, and within a year of that, they were operational. They took the technology from their bicycle shop and didn’t pay any attention to the obstacles in front of them. That’s the kind of energy I would want.
As for the future, I know the U.S. is planning on going back to the moon and onto Mars, and I want to make sure that, that first American on the surface of Mars is Ohioan, and I want that Ohioan on the committee. Ohio is the mother of astronauts. We’ve led our innovations all this way – I expect it’s an Ohioan touching down on Mars.
Learn more about the Ohio Chamber’s Innovation & Technology Committee here.