You can take the biologist out of the lab, but you can’t take the laboratory out of the biologist.

University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono was in his element during a brief visit recently to the remodeled biology labs in Rieveschl Hall on UC’s main campus.

Ono, a professor of pediatrics in the UC College of Medicine and professor of biology in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, moved from one lab bench to the next, asking questions.

Before rushing back across campus for a meeting, he quizzed one new faculty member about his DNA research, telling him: “I want to see your leeches sometime.”

With his bright bowtie, engaging manner and social media savvy , Ono has captured the imagination of faculty, students and alumni since becoming UC’s 28th president in 2012.

As the leader of the region’s largest university with 6,000 faculty members, some 43,000 students, and a $3 billion impact on the region, Ono is a key figure in shaping the region’s innovation economy.

Away from the Clifton campus, he chairs Gov. Kasich’s taskforce on the state’s biopharmaceutical industry and serves on the board of the Ohio Third Frontier Advisory Committee, the Ohio Business Roundtable and Cintrifuse, the new accelerator for the region’s entrepreneurial economy.

“The University of Cincinnati has a central role in fostering innovation not only here in Cincinnati but also across Ohio and on the national scene,” Ono says. “We are one of the largest repositories of intellectual property in this region and one of the top in the state. We have an affiliated health system, which is very large, and a lot of clinical trials go through there. A number of programs at UC are among the best in the nation and the best in the world.”

Besides its research portfolio, UC’s entrepreneurship program has been ranked among the top 20 in the nation.

In November, UC won the overall award in the inaugural Economic University Awards presented by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. UC was recognized for making connections in all the areas of university economic development, including innovation, entrepreneurship, technology transfer, workforce and community development.

In October, UC’s Research Institute formalized a collaboration with GE Aviation on a jet engine research center. GE has committed $6 million over three years to fund six researchers and 19 students to work on advanced combustion technology, lightweight ceramic matrix composites materials and advanced aircraft electrical systems.

“You have basically an entire jet engine in a controlled environment where you can measure temperature, you can measure wind velocity,” says Ono. “You can literally test how small changes can affect a jet engine. Small margins really make all the difference from a company’s standpoint. That could be the difference in a major contract.”

UCRI is developing similar partnerships through its criminal justice program and medical school.

“I believe that UCRI represents one of the most exciting opportunities for research at UC. If you look at other institutions that have sponsored research institutes, you can see that there’s much more optimism about funding from industry than the federal government.”

In the face of tightening government budgets, he says, “any institution that wants to grow research is going to have to diversify their portfolio and include these industrial interactions.

“I frankly think it’s good for the country because if the interface between industry and academia is very strong, then our industries will thrive and that connection often results in our graduates getting jobs soon after graduation because employers know who they are.”

A lot of UC’s industry-university connections are built on its heritage as a leader in cooperation education, where students get real world experience while still in school.

“I think we’re one of the leading institutions in involving our students while they are students in activities in industry. UCRI just amplifies that interaction and has the potential to create jobs and to strengthen the local economy.”

In a teaching and research career that took him from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, the University College of London and Emory University, before coming to UC in 2010 as Provost, Ono earned patents for his research into the immune system and eye diseases. He served as chief science officer for a time for a biomedical startup in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Experience has taught him that innovation requires a special mindset. “The business of developing biomedicine and biotechnology products is something that requires thinking outside of the box. It also requires that you understand the eco-system required to bring it to the market place. It requires that you have scientific skill and you understand how to finance it.”

It also takes patience. “Whether you’re a politician or a university president or taxpayer, it’s important for people to be aware of the pace of innovation because if you don’t have that knowledge and if you’re impatient then investments that we make… if you pull the plug too early they’ll be making a drastic mistake.”

There’s work to do, but he says Ohio’s innovation economy is gaining momentum.

“If you look across the United States, I’d say Ohio is being very innovative in establishing opportunities and platforms where the state, private sector and universities come together,” he says.

Closer to home, Ono thinks it is transforming the Queen City on many levels. Efforts such as the Brandery, Cintrifuse and CincyTech are “best in class,” he says.

And the effort is engaging more young people in the life of the community.

“I’m seeing recent graduates and individuals in the community who are transplants to Cincinnati really getting involved in the community. So absolutely, I think whatever we can do to make this an attractive center for innovation will have spin off effect on the vibrancy of the city.”