UBC’s new social media savvy leader spearheads tech commercialization

As president of University of Cincinnati, Santa Ono was a big supporter of tech, biotech sectors

UBC's new president officially takes the helm in August. | Paul Joseph/University of British Columbia
Santa Ono is not the sort of academic that advertisers and marketers would normally invite as a guest speaker.

A gathering of scientists, physicians or academics is a more likely event for the accomplished researcher, university professor and administrator, now serving as president of the University of Cincinnati (UC) before taking up a new role as president of the University of British Columbia (UBC).

But because he used Twitter so effectively as a tool to help raise the U.S. university’s profile, he was invited to speak at the American Marketing Association’s annual meeting last year. It was there that Julie Ovenell from UBC’s communications department stood up and essentially offered him a job.

“She stood up right after and said, ‘I’m from the University of British Columbia, and you’re exactly the kind of person we want to be the next president of UBC,’” Ono said. “That’s how it happened – it wasn’t a headhunter.”

Ono officially assumes the role of UBC’s new president in mid-August, replacing interim president Martha Piper.

Vancouver will be gaining someone who earned tremendous admiration in Cincinnati’s academic and business communities, said Bob Coy, CEO of the Cincinnati tech accelerator CincyTech, where Ono sits on the board of directors.

“He was just a beloved person here by the students and in the business community, as well as the community at large,” Coy said. “So you’ve got a really outstanding individual to run your university, and truly a force for good.”

Beth Robinson, CEO of Cincinnati’s Uptown Consortium, a non-profit organization that is planning to develop a 44-acre innovation district near the university for the biosciences and high-tech sectors, said Ono was one of the driving forces behind the project, representing UC on the consortium’s board of directors and serving as chairman.

“It’s his vision, really, that set out the concepts that we’re working toward,” Robinson said. “He’s going to be a big loss for that initiative because it was really his vision and energy that was really propelling us forward on that.”

Coming to Vancouver to lead UBC will be something of a homecoming for Ono, who was born in Vancouver, although he has lived most of his life in the U.S.

His father, Takashi Ono, was a mathematician who emigrated from Japan after the Second World War at the invitation of Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who led the team of scientists that created the atomic bomb.

Takashi Ono later ended up teaching at UBC. Santa Ono was born in Vancouver in 1962, but he grew up in the U.S. and has spent most of his professional life there.

He earned a BA in biology from the University of Chicago and a PhD in experimental medicine from McGill University, where he met his wife, Wendy Yip, who has a PhD in experimental medicine and a degree in law.

Ono specialized in research on the human immune system and diseases of the eye, and has taught or worked as an administrator at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University College London and Emory universities.

While he was teaching at University College London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital, Ono become the chief science officer for Vancouver’s iCo Therapeutics Inc. (TSX:ICO) when the company was taking a new eye-disease drug through clinical trials. He also served as the biomedical science chairman for Glaxo-SmithKline (Nasdaq:GSK).

He served as provost at Emory University before being hired by UC, where he served as provost and, later, as president.

While at UC, he become one of the first university presidents to fully embrace social media, and garnered more than 73,000 followers on Twitter. He recently adopted a new Twitter handle – @ubcprez – and within three days had more than 2,500 followers.

Ono is taking a pay cut to come to Vancouver. But his habit of giving away his bonuses to scholarships and charities while president at UC underscores that money is not a priority for Ono. In fact, he thinks U.S. universities pay their administrators too much.

“It’s appropriate that we hold executive compensation in check,” he said.

“It would have been really inappropriate for me to ask for more and more money just because I made more money south of the border.”

While at UC, he earned US $525,000 and when offered US$400,000 worth of bonuses, he gave it away to charity.

“I could have made US$900,000, so instead of accepting that, every year I declined it,” he explained.

He also sold the university president’s house for US$3 million and used the proceeds to create a new endowment to provide scholarships.

Although he will be making less at UBC, it’s a bigger job. UBC has a higher enrolment (60,000 compared with UC’s 44,000) and a budget ($2.3 billion) that is twice as large.

The vacuum Ono is filling was created last year when former UBC president Arvind Gupta quit after clashing with the university’s board of governors. Ono is confident he won’t have the same problems.

“Things have changed,” he said. “The board chair has changed, many of the governors have changed, so it’s an entirely different scene. And it’s clear from speaking to the chair and the governors and to many people in the executive that there’s a 100% commitment to working in partnership with faculty. So it’s a new day and I’m a new president.”

Vancouver’s high-tech and life sciences sectors can expect to see the university build on its already significant role as a startup generator under Ono’s leadership.

“The economic impact of UBC is several billion dollars a year, and I think we can do even better in terms of creating more startups, commercializing our intellectual property, creating jobs for British Columbians,” Ono said.

“UBC is really one of the world’s great universities, probably in the top six to 10 in North America alone. The magnitude of research alone is worth about half a billion and spinoff companies from UBC have raised $540 million in the past 10 years, and licensing revenue is about $166 million.

“If you look across Canada at all the institutions, we’re No. 1 in Canada in the total value of industry and sponsored research contracts.”

While in Cincinnati, Ono was a big supporter of the city’s tech sector, Coy said.

“He has been very supportive of commercialization of technology. He himself has experience as a faculty member commercializing his own technology, so he understands it first-hand, personally, and he has relationships with venture funds around the country, especially in the life sciences sector.”

Ono said he expects his wife will also help play an active role in Vancouver civic affairs.

“She really has been a great partner, not only as a wife, but also in university business,” Ono said of Yip, who was born in Canada of parents who had moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai before crossing the Pacific.

“With UBC’s location in the Pacific Rim and the growth in Asia, she’s going to play a very important ambassadorial role, as we regularly travel to not only to Japan, but also Hong Kong and China. She really will be able to connect UBC as an institution with major stakeholders and friends in Asia.”

Ono and Yip have two daughters, aged 11 and 18. His hobbies include playing the cello, watching hockey and tweeting. 

nbennett@biv.com