After growing up in Nevada, and attending the University of Nevada, Reno, Brian Sandoval developed a passion to change the state for the better. When the opportunity arose, he ran for and was elected Governor of Nevada in 2010. Despite facing some of the worst economic times in the state’s history, he spent eight years leading economic development and improving statewide education. He then went on to be selected as the President of the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is still focused on curating higher education programs that set the state up for economic success.
President of the University of Nevada, Reno, Brian Sandoval, Drives Economic Change in the State of Nevada
Following the Great Recession in 2008-2009, Brian Sandoval was elected as Governor of Nevada in 2010. Amid an extreme economic downturn, Mr. Sandoval was facing unprecedented unemployment rates and plummeting education standards. Over his two terms as governor, he worked hard to completely change the economic landscape in the state of Nevada. Playing an integral role in companies like Apple, Tesla, and Panasonic moving into the state, creating thousands of jobs, and bringing in much-needed revenue. Not long after his tenure as Governor, Mr. Sandoval was selected as the President of the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2020. As a lifelong Nevadan and the first President who is also an alumnus of the University, he’s continuing to aid in the state’s economic development through higher education programs that create a highly skilled workforce.
In this episode of the Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast, Mr. Sandoval sits down with host Denis Phares. Together they discuss the integral role Mr. Sandoval has played in the state’s economic development, both as Governor of Nevada and President of the University of Nevada, Reno. His determination to improve the state of Nevada’s economy led him to implement the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), bring in major tech companies, and diversify the state’s economy. Now, as President of the University, he’s continuing to pursue these goals by creating a higher education curriculum that directly relates to the growing industries in the state. Through this, Mr. Sandoval is giving companies like Dragonfly Energy, Redwood Materials, and AquaMetals more opportunities to grow.
Denis Phares 0:17
Hello, and welcome to The Li-MITLESS ENERGY Podcast. And today it is my great pleasure to introduce former governor of Nevada and current president of the University of Nevada, Brian Sandoval.
Brian Sandoval 0:28
Denis, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Denis Phares 0:31
It’s so awesome to have you here. I kind of feel like we go way back. I moved to Reno about 11 years ago now, and I just want to tell the story that the first time I ever saw you, you were getting a pizza at Wild Garlic pizza. And I was just floored that the governor of the state was actually out and about with his family getting pizza. That was a level of accessibility. Moving from California, I had never even met the mayor of Pasadena where I lived. So, that was a great introduction to the state for me. And then, the company got started, we really started firing up in 2016. You were still governor, and we were able to meet you in your office and talk about the launch of Dragonfly Energy. Do you remember that?
Brian Sandoval 1:18
I do. It was very exciting.
Denis Phares 1:20
So, it was a different time, there was a lot more collaboration with China. We had the Chinese Consulate come by. We were talking about sort of a bridge at the time. And politics have, obviously, shifted, and we’re more looking at, I would say a de-risking strategy in the United States here. But as time evolved, our relationship with you, and especially, with the University has continued to progress. So, I want to thank you for all the support you’ve given us.
Brian Sandoval 1:53
And it’s my pleasure. And I’m really proud of you all and what you’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time in developing the next big thing in technology, in batteries, in lithium that we’re going to see. And I love being out and about, and great we got to see one another at Wild Garlic pizza. That was a good way to start.
Denis Phares 2:15
Brian Sandoval 2:17
Denis Phares 2:17
So, before we get into Nevada and lithium, I want to talk about your transition into academia. So, this has been done before, obviously, I guess the latest would be Senator Sasse, who’s now at University of Florida. But why does it make sense?
Brian Sandoval 2:35
Well, it makes sense, first and foremost, I grew up here. I went to grade school high school, and I’m the first university president who’s also an alum of the University in its 150 or 149-year history. But as governor, higher education, K through 12 education were a big priority for me, and also economic development, and the future of the state. And so, all these things, it was, essentially, being, hopefully being, the right person at the right time with the right experience to bring all these things forward.
Denis Phares 3:09
Education and economic development go hand in hand. And let’s talk about one important thing you did as governor, which, and you can tell me how involved you were, but the fact that Tesla and Panasonic chose Reno or Fernley to build the first Gigafactory here in the United States. How did you participate in that? How important were, let’s say, the tax abatements?
Brian Sandoval 3:37
And I’d love to tell that story. And I was heavily involved in that process, but even backing up, so I was elected in 2010 and the state was in its worst economic place that it had ever been. And we had 14 and a half percent unemployment, close to 300,000 people had lost their jobs. We were worse in the country in high school graduation rates, medically insured, reading attainment, math attainment, all of those things. And we knew we needed to diversify the economy, so we moved the economic development from Lieutenant Governor’s office into the Governor’s office and created the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. But what we also did was created a strategic plan. And within that strategic plan was an intentional effort to, obviously, attract new businesses to the state, and particularly, advanced manufacturing. So, that was essentially the genesis of what led to bringing Tesla to the state, and I can go into more detail. So, previous to Tesla, we attracted Apple here, and Apple has a data center a few miles east of Sparks. And Tesla had announced that it was going to build a Gigafactory, and it was going to make a multi-billion-dollar investment, and that it was going to hire thousands of employees. Well, obviously, that was music to my ears, and we wanted to be in the game. And so, we as a state, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and myself held ourselves out there. And there was, essentially, an RFP, and we put together a package and Tesla responded. There were other states that were competing for this; New Mexico, California wanted to keep this, Arizona. And, as I mentioned, we’re in a recession and Texas is offering hundreds of millions of cash as incentives. So, essentially, we had to put a package together. And one of the things that we had that they didn’t have was the Reno Tahoe Industrial Center. And a big piece of land that always already had the infrastructure, and credit goes to Storey County, the ability to issue a building permit within a week. And so, Tesla, obviously, had to do its due diligence, and one of the things that was a huge advantage to us was the fact that they could start construction immediately, essentially, versus other states where they could not. But still, we needed to provide some financial incentives, as you stated, and we didn’t have a state law that could accommodate that level of incentives. So, once we started negotiating with Tesla, I had to call a special session of the legislature to get the legislation approved that required the elements of what Tesla had to do. You have to hire X amount of people. Of those people, 80%, 90%, whatever it was, have to come from Nevada. They have to have a certain pay. They have to have certain benefits. You have to invest at least I think it was three and a half, four billion dollars over time and, in return, they got the sales tax abatements, property tax abatements, some other abatements. There were some other small pieces to it because, an increment of the sales tax goes to K through 12 education. I didn’t want to harm K through 12, so we required them to come up with that increment. So, there was a lot more to it, but obviously, at the end of the day, we were selected. I had the opportunity to speak, and essentially, negotiate with Elon Musk, and man of his word, man of integrity, tough bargainer. But I just figured it was a win-win for the state. We did the economic impact studies, and essentially, it came out too well, “We’ll give you $1, and you’ll give us $5 back because of the economic impact.” So, the rest is history. It’s a $5 billion building. I think, at the time, they were manufacturing 60 or 70,000 cars a year, it’s, I think, north of a million cars that they’re manufacturing. Panasonic was there too; they’re manufacturing the lithium batteries there. There was just an announcement that Tesla is going to expand even more, three and a half billion dollars. They employ close to 10,000, if not more than 10,000 people and it’s changed the landscape for Northern Nevada.
Denis Phares 8:23
For sure. That’s what you’re describing is the direct effect, and there’s also an indirect effect and that’s why I bring up that particular part of what GOED did because Dragonfly was part of the halo effect. We had no affiliation, still don’t, with Tesla. But just the fact that we were here, we actually came here, I came here because there’s lithium here. I thought that was important in terms of being a lithium company. But it wasn’t until Tesla came that people started to take notice of us, for whatever reason. I think that’s part of the halo effect that if they had not come then we wouldn’t be where we are today. So, for that, I thank you for the work that you put in.
Brian Sandoval 9:09
It was all about Nevada. And really, again, diversifying our economy and giving people opportunity. I will never forget, as governor, we set up an opportunity in Southern Nevada for individuals to renegotiate their loans on their houses. And I got there at seven in the morning, there was a line of hundreds of people. And, for me, every job was an important job. I even went to the grand opening of a gelato shop because every job mattered. So, this was something that I love how you put it, the halo effect that I knew would have a seismic impact on our economy and the people in Nevada.
Denis Phares 9:52
So, fast forward to now, Nevada is a lithium hub, and energy hub. It really is becoming that, and the University plays a big role. What is your vision of how the University is tied into the growth of this industry?
Brian Sandoval 10:10
And I appreciate the question. What we like to call it is the lithium loop because, now, the state is in a position that, unlike anywhere else on planet Earth, and I’d love to hear your observations, but we’re going to mine the lithium, we’re going to process the lithium, you’re going to manufacture the lithium and put it in batteries. And the batteries are going to be used in Battle Born Batteries, and in the trailers, and boats, and things, and the other applications that you have. And then, when they’re finished, Redwood Materials is going to recycle the lithium, and then, it’s going to come back into the process. So, we will have this closed loop, lithium loop, unlike anywhere else. Where does the University come? We are one of the top research universities in the country. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re at Carnegie R1 high research university, and we have outstanding faculty and research capabilities on all of the areas that I just talked about. So, we love the opportunity to work with private industry in terms of research, important for us to develop the students that are going to be the future workforce for all of you. We’re really proud of our students, and they go out and do the internships, and they do an amazing job for you. And then, hopefully, Dragonfly chooses to retain them. So, we feel like we’re extremely involved in this and have a very important role in the success of the companies in the area.
Denis Phares 11:45
You’re absolutely right. And I can speak firsthand on this, we work a lot with interns from the university, we’ve hired a lot of them. For a while, the entire R&D team and engineering team were UNR grads. And the ability, the proximity to the University, the skill that the students have and their ability to learn creates an incredible workforce for us here in Reno. And I do agree that that is a very big part of why you’re able to have all these companies; Tesla, and Redwood Materials, and AquaMetals, and Comstock, and ABTC, and all these lithium-focused companies just spring up right around this area, and the workforce is here.
Brian Sandoval 12:34
Well, I neglected to mention, including you. You’re one of our graduates. And I get this feedback all the time that there are a lot of great universities out there, but our graduates, our interns come, and they have an incredible work ethic, and they’re incredibly bright, and they work extremely hard and are devoted. So, we call that part of the wolfpack way in terms of the ethics and ethos that they bring to the table for their employers.
Denis Phares 13:06
And what an exciting time to be in Reno too. I would imagine before, 10 years ago, when the economy was not so diversified here and you had graduates coming out like you, where did they go? Well, I guess there was a big push to leave town at that point. And now, it’s a lot more attractive to stay.
Brian Sandoval 13:29
And you’re right. We weren’t diversified. And there was a time where, obviously, Nevada was the only state in the country that had legalized gaming. And so, there were a lot of opportunities for students not even to go to college and have a successful career. And then, it was just Nevada and in New Jersey. And so, we were really reliant on the gaming economy. And then, we started having the tribal gaming in Northern California, and we were really reliant on people coming over the hill, and now they didn’t have to do that because they could have a similar experience. Now, fast forward when I became governor and we had those economic challenges, I’ll never forget, front page above the fold, Reno Gazette journal. And I don’t mean this pejoratively of Detroit, but it said, “Reno, the Detroit of the West.” And the point of that was our economy was imploding. And so, that was part of the impetus to really diversify the economy. But, back to your question, our graduates, they graduate, they had to go somewhere else in order to get a great job. Maybe it’s Silicon Valley, somewhere else in California, but there really weren’t a lot of jobs, and now, fast forward, we don’t have enough students to fill all the opportunities that are here. And our students love to stay here. And we do some surveys, over 60% of our students, graduates, stay here in Northern Nevada. And part of the reason for that is now they can go to great schools, get a great education, get a great internship, and then go on and get a great job and great career. Right here.
Denis Phares 15:12
Yep. And still, you have great skiing too. There’s other benefits to that.
Brian Sandoval 15:17
Yes. (Laughs) Oh, there’s much. We were just rated, we being Reno, the happiest city in the United States of America.
Denis Phares 15:22
Is that right?
Brian Sandoval 15:23
Yes, because of all the outdoor opportunities.
Denis Phares 15:27
Wow. So, as the University continues to evolve, and this industry — I’m focused on the lithium industry, obviously, that’s what we do, that’s what this podcast is about — but as these start to evolve and mature together, how do you see that in five years from now? How do you see things evolving and changing from where they are now?
Brian Sandoval 15:49
Well, I think we’re going to continue to evolve with the lithium industry. We have a lithium battery minor. And, obviously, we’d hope to evolve that into a major. And develop other specialties within the University and customize them to what you all need. That’s why I think it’s important to have this partnership so that you call me up and say, “Brian, we need A, B, C, and D.” And then, I talk to Eric Jones, who’s the Dean of our College of Engineering and say, “Dean Jones, can you go out and meet with Denis and see if we can develop that specific curriculum that will really give an opportunity for economic development and business, but at the same time, give our graduates opportunities when they graduate?” So, I see us continuing to diversify our curriculum, and modeling it, and customizing it to what the industry needs locally.
Denis Phares 16:46
Is this sort of a newer Stanford Silicon Valley model, or is this a new template that we’re creating for the rest of the country?
Brian Sandoval 16:55
I think, for sure, it’s different. And I’m a little biased because I grew up here, but this is a really special place. And one of the things that I’m really proud of, of our university is how nimble we are. And we’re celebrating our 149th birthday next week, and I tell people, “We are only 10 years younger than the state of Nevada itself, we being the University of Nevada.” So, our history is inextricably intertwined with the history of the state. And the state, through its changes, the University has been the one constant in terms of being able to supply the workforce, supply the academic expertise, and what have you. And I see us being there in that position too because we are the state’s original land-grant university, and we have a responsibility to do that. So, I think there’s a distinction there in terms of us and Stanford, and I love being in the same sentences as Stanford. It, obviously, is one of the top universities in the world. But we think we can be more reactive, and, as I said, more nimble for what the industry needs here.
Denis Phares 18:08
Well, the Stanford Silicon Valley analogy there, I guess, is you had a whole industry there that evolved around, basically, software, I guess, and Stanford was developing the technology. And there was a lot of technology transfer, and spinouts, and that sort of thing. The way it is now with the University of Nevada, there’s a resource here. So, it’s a natural resource. So, it makes sense that the industry develops here. Folks are moving in, and there is technology that is moving in with that as well. And so, eventually, the University itself will be the source of the technology as well. And the technology transfer aspect of it is going to become more and more important. Do you see that happening already, or how do you see it evolving?
Brian Sandoval 19:01
I do. Evolving and happening, but it’s exciting because, as I mentioned, we have this loop. And you talked about the mining of lithium, we have the Mackay School of Mines and Earth Sciences. So, we have one of the top mining schools in the country that is already working with them. I just finished meeting with a mining company that has a new technology that wants to invest and create a faculty position that can help them, and I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about. But the College of Engineering, College of Science, both of those have eminent researchers that have the ability to come up with the new… Whatever the next big thing and new things are, in cooperation with industry to develop this new intellectual property that I think will advance and accelerate what you all do.
Denis Phares 19:58
How is the federal government supportive of this, focusing here on the State of Nevada? In the past, there was always a desire to help the states that didn’t have all the populations, didn’t have all the money. There was more sort of research money allotted there. But now, is there an extra push from the federal government to, specifically, help the industry grow here?
Brian Sandoval 20:22
I think so. I’m not as close to it as I used to be as governor. But you never know. We do have constant conversations with our federal delegation, our senators and congress people. But we work with the National Science Foundation, we work with the federal government because, typically, the larger universities, you said Stanford, and those, would basically get more than the lion’s share of the research money that is out there, and we would like to see a better spreading of the wealth, I’ll put it that way, than exists right now. But it’s incumbent on us to show that we’re capable and deserving of doing that. So, that’s part of why we have really put an emphasis on our research mission, and we continue to move up the ranks of a Carnegie High Research Institution.
Denis Phares 21:23
I do see a lot of support from our senators, our congressmen, and the governor. We actually just did a trade mission to Canada with Governor Lombardo. So, there’s definitely support from our local representative and representation.
Brian Sandoval 21:40
And the governor, I’m glad you know that he really is putting a priority on economic development. And thank you for being a part of that trade mission. We had multiple faculty members, we had two deans, and the vice president of our research and innovation that were on that trade mission as well.
Denis Phares 21:59
Yeah, it’s exciting times. So, I guess we’ll wrap it up here. I know you’re a busy guy, so I’ll let you get back to running the University. But thank you so much for being on the podcast. And it’s always a pleasure talking to you.
Brian Sandoval 22:15
No, and thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for what you do. I think Dragonfly Energy is one of the great stories in Northern Nevada, and I really mean that. It is the essence of the American success story. So, really proud of you and your team.
Denis Phares 22:32
Well, cheers to that. Thank you.
Brian Sandoval 22:34
Denis Phares 22:35
President Brian Sandoval. Thank you for listening to the podcast. Be sure to subscribe on any of your favorite podcast platforms.
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