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Columbia Business Monthly

New USC President Michael Amiridis Bringing ‘Innovation Network’ to University

Oct 03, 2022 11:17AM ● By C. Grant Jackson

By C. Grant Jackson

The University of South Carolina’s new president wants to create a way for South Carolina businesses to come to the university with their problems and for the university to provide solutions.

Michael Amiridis, Ph.D., wants to establish “a satellite system of innovation centers that will address specific problems, practical problems” for business. Amiridis, who became USC president on July 1, is borrowing the innovation center model from the University of Illinois Chicago, where he was chancellor until his appointment as USC president.

“We called it an innovation network – small satellite groups across the state – and we have the capacity to do this in South Carolina, with the Upstate, Beaufort, Aiken,” as well as in Columbia at the main campus.

The Illinois Innovation Network, run though the University of Illinois System, is a collaborative effort of public university, community, and industry-based hubs focused on driving innovation and economic and workforce development across Illinois. The University of Illinois Chicago hub focused on computing, drug discovery, and entrepreneurship.

Each USC center could have an area or areas of expertise endemic to that region.

“I expect for example that the emphasis of Beaufort will be on tourism. And there are many questions about tourism that you can ask that are interesting and that may inform policy,” Amiridis said. 

Amiridis has been discussing the centers of innovation idea with business leaders throughout the state. In the Midlands, he’s presented to both the Columbia and Lexington chambers of commerce and the Midlands Business Leadership Group. “I had these discussions with a group of business leaders in Aiken as well, and the response has been very positive,” he said.

“Dr. Amiridis talks about an innovation center at the university that will provide resources to practical problems. What a great example of town and gown,“ said James Bennett, chair of the Midlands Business Leadership Group.

“All of these things add to the quality of life,” Bennett added. “We are excited to welcome Dr. Amiridis back to the Midlands. He is a bridge builder and a thought leader constantly thinking about how we can work to bring together a more inclusive community.”

Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann is particularly excited about the potential for research coming out of the USC Medical School. “I would love to see research that spins off orthopedics and prosthetics,” the mayor said during an interview earlier this year. According to the mayor, Columbia‘s 29203 zip code has more prostheses than any other place in the country. “We are surrounded by military retirees. So is there a way we could take advantage and benefit the entire community? Who else has got a center of excellence like that? I can’t think of one.”

That kind of research facility would be very compatible with new facilities at the USC School of Medicine, which the university plans to move from its historic location off Garners Ferry Road into the BullStreet District in downtown Columbia. “That move is very significant. It’s a big project for USC. It is a big project for the state, and I’m grateful for the support that the state has given it,” Amiridis said.

The move will allow USC to build a modern state-of-the-art facility, with room for expansion beyond the initial project, which is about $300 million, Amiridis said. 

“So this is exactly the opportunity that the mayor is talking about. I don’t know in what areas, but I know that sports medicine and orthopedics together are among the strongest clinical departments that we have.” But Amiridis points out that the medical specialties alone cannot develop or design new prosthetic devices.

“That’s where the innovation center that I am talking about brings together engineering and business as well as medicine. And maybe one field we are lacking is some kind of industrial design,” he said.

“So the mayor is right on the money. This creates an opportunity for us to bring people together in a new state-of-the-art environment.”

Moving forward with more research activity and funding is a key priority for the university. “The numbers that I have seen leave a lot of room for improvement at this point,” Amiridis said. One of the priorities will be “to create an environment and create the opportunities for multidisciplinary efforts to flourish in key areas where we have strengths,” he said, “to come together and create these institutes or centers that consistently bring big amounts of federal money.”

As an R-1 research Institution, a good portion of what USC faculty engage in is long-term research. “Basic research that right now businesses in South Carolina may be detached from,” Amiridis said, “and we will continue to do this. This is our mission and our responsibility, but that doesn’t prevent us from addressing some practical problems.” 

Returning to Columbia was a homecoming for Amiridis, 60, the 30th president of the University of South Carolina, who has a long history with USC. He started at USC as a professor of chemical engineering in 1994, was chair of the department of chemical engineering from 2002-2006, then became dean of the College of Engineering in 2006 and vice president for academic affairs and provost in 2009.

He was lured away in 2015 to become chancellor of the University of Illinois Chicago, where he received high marks in leading that institution. In a letter to UIC students, faculty and staff, marking Amiridis’ departure, University of Illinois System president Timothy L. Killeen noted that under Amiridis’ leadership, enrollment reached a record of more than 34,000 students, the university acquired the John Marshall Law School, now the UIC School of Law --  Chicago’s first public law school – and “in 2020, UIC surpassed a record $400 million in research awards and reached its bold fundraising goals.”

Amiridis also “transformed the UIC campus,” Killeen wrote, “by overseeing the construction of the Engineering Innovation Building and the Academic Residential Complex, where hundreds of students now live and learn.”

Although Amiridis was in Chicago for seven years, in some sense he never really left the University of South Carolina and Columbia, where he and his wife Ero Aggelopoulou-Amiridis, lived for over two decades and raised their family. “I was coming back. I was coming back because my kids were here.” Their daughter, Aspasia, graduated from USC in 2019 with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and their son, Dimitri, graduated in May of 2022 with a degree in computer engineering. President Amiridis is, in fact, the only member of his immediate family without a degree from USC. Ero Aggelopoulou-Amiridis, USC’s new first lady, has two degrees from the university: a master’s in art history and a Ph.D. in philosophy.

A native of Kavala, Greece, President Amiridis received his undergraduate degree from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki in Greece. He received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991, and worked in private industry and was a lecturer at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore before coming to USC.

Earlier this year, he was recognized as a Great Immigrant by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The annual list celebrates naturalized citizens “who have enriched and strengthened our nation and our democracy through their contributions and actions.” Amiridis became a naturalized citizen in 2000 while on the USC faculty.

“I have no idea how this happened. Honestly, I have no idea,” said Amiridis about the honor. “There must have been some way I was nominated, but nobody told me.”

Being recognized as a Great Immigrant by the Carnegie Corporation “is a great honor that reflects both my Greek heritage and my American citizenship,” Amiridis said at the time of the announcement. 

His background is a plus that allows him to have different perspectives, he said. 

“I have the perspective of the European, Greek background that I have, and at the same time I have the perspective of someone who grew up in higher education in this country. And I think the combination of the two is an advantage,” he said, “because I bring my previous experience with me. As I tell people: I’m Greek by birth, but I’m American by choice. And this makes a difference.” 

That gives him the ability to understand the differences in education internationally, he said, and to compare and contrast and chose the best educational models for USC. His background also helps him understand the international students who come to USC, whether they are first-generation immigrants like himself or the children of immigrants, “which is what my kids are. It helps me be able to address the issues and the questions as they may come up.”

The university’s main role is “building the future of  the state,” Amiridis said, as it has been since the university’s founding more than 200 years ago. That is accomplished, he said, “first of all by educating the next generation of leaders for the state.” But not just elected leaders. “You do this in every area, you do it in business, you do this for culture, for cities, in every area of the state,” Amiridis said. 

But at the same time the university is affecting that future in many areas, Amiridis said, and one of the ways the university does that is by helping improve economic opportunities for the state’s citizens. “I view it as our responsibility to support the state in all of its efforts in economic development, and in some cases lead those efforts,’’ said Amiridis.

As he takes USC’s helm, Amiridis said higher education faces significant challenges across the country. “A lot of people are asking questions of higher education, and they even question how relevant high education is today. I see this across the country. And it comes, by the way, from both ends of the political spectrum. It is not only one side that says that,” he said. 

But Amiridis said he has experienced a tremendous outpouring of goodwill, both from inside and outside the state. “The key challenge for me is to make sure that this goodwill can be changed into momentum. I think the entire academic community, whether they are faculty, staff, students want to move forward. Nobody wants to stay in the past,” he said.  “They want to move forward, and I think the best way to achieve this  is to do meaningful work together and create momentum. So there are a lot of plans for the next year to gain this momentum.”