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Military vet Luke Sebby named NIU innovation director

February 26, 2020

Two U.S. Army combat tours of Iraq. Expertise in Arabic linguistics. Six years of civilian intelligence work with the U.S. Department of Defense. Official travel spanning Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. A leadership role in an applied research organization.

Luke Sebby, director of NIU innovation partnerships and technology transfer

Suffice it to say, Luke Sebby brings a unique background to NIU.

Sebby, 40, of Winfield, began this month as director of NIU innovation partnerships and technology transfer.

The new position is charged with managing the 71 North Partnership Studio and developing the university’s external entrepreneurial relationships.

“Luke has an impressive background and will bring invaluable experience, energy and insight to NIU,” says Jerry Blazey, vice president for the Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships.

“He will promote strategic university-wide innovation relationships and entrepreneurship for students, staff and faculty—and the commercialization of their efforts.”

While Sebby has traveled the world, NIU represents a homecoming.

A graduate of Marmion Academy in Aurora, he pursued a career in national security starting with the Army, followed by civilian work in the D.C. region. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from Tufts University in Massachusetts, a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia and an Executive Certificate in Strategy and Innovation from MIT.

For the past seven years, Sebby worked for the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation, most recently as vice president of operations and development.

In that post, he focused on sparking innovation between the U.S. Department of Defense and small businesses and academic communities. During his time there, he says, the nonprofit grew in profitability, with excess funds poured back into research and development. He’s no stranger to technology transfer, partnership building, spinout companies and commercialization of applied research.

This past year, Sebby and his wife Kathleen, a Michigan native, decided to return to the Midwest, where they would be closer to family.

“It was important for me to find a role where I could make an impact using my experience with academia, industry and the federal government,” Sebby says. “I want to help move the innovation needle, and I’m inspired by the vision of Jerry Blazey and President Lisa Freeman.”

Sebby believes his training in “red team” leadership will be an asset. Red teaming employs a form of devil’s advocacy—challenging plans, policies, systems and assumptions—in the decision-making process. “Weirdly, there’s a relationship between red teaming and the innovation process,” Sebby says. “With both, you have to ask the right questions.”

He also describes himself as data driven. Toward that end, his top priorities include an “innovation inventory” of the people, processes, technologies and infrastructure at NIU. He is studying similar institutions as well, to find best practices and lessons learned from successes and failures.

The inventory and case studies will inform innovation strategy, he says, including with the development of the planned Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability, which recently received $15 million in state capital funding. “The center brings exciting possibilities for multidisciplinary collaboration—including with government, other universities and industry—along with opportunities for students to apply what they’re learning,” Sebby says.

He steps into his new role at an opportune time.

The 71 North Partnership Studio, located on the lower level of Founders Memorial Library, is scheduled for a makeover, possibly as early as this summer. The space is dedicated to the promotion of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship throughout the NIU community.

Sebby also will have a chance to rub shoulders with leaders in the NIU entrepreneurial community during this semester’s 71 North Entrepreneurship and Innovation Series, which will bring students, faculty, alumni and community members together for discussions on innovation.

Among the discussion leaders will be Travis Linderman, managing director of Innovation DuPage, an organization that supports the entrepreneurial community in the western suburbs. The university has a memorandum of understanding to collaborate with the nonprofit.

“NIU is not an island,” Sebby says. “It’s part of a broader ecosystem, connected to many different people, places and organizations, like Innovation DuPage and the Illinois Innovation Network. I’m looking forward to strengthening these connections and building new ones.”