lack Fire Innovation was announced last month as a partnership between the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), Caesars Entertainment Corp. and Gardner Company that will bring the university and local businesses together to test, develop and commercialize hospitality products and ideas.
The facility will include a 43,000-square-foot lab, workspace and a replica resort and casino, within a four-story, 111,000-square-foot innovation building. Students and researchers will be able to use the two-story facility to showcase their work for industry partners.
The idea behind Black Fire Innovation has been an ongoing issue for universities and the start-up community in general: “Individuals have great ideas and there is usually a gap between that idea and commercialization,” says Zachary Miles, UNLV’s Associate Vice President for Economic Development, in an interview with Yogonet. The gap normally consists of insufficient funding, lack of a location to house a start-up, funding and tools to develop prototypes and initial capital to move the idea forward, and lack of mentors, networks, or larger business on the back-end to help move the company forward, become a potential client/consumer, or target for institutional funding / merger / acquisition.
“Serendipity brought Caesars to the table,” he adds. Les Ottolenghi (Executive Vice President & Chief Information Officer at Caesars), John Celona (Vice President, Business Innovation and Technology Strategy), and Andrew Baca (Director - Business Innovation & Technology Strategy) are part of their IT department but are also in charge of innovations and new product commercialization. They were having a similar problem and needed a space to accelerate/incubate their ideas as well as needed to harvest new ideas from other sources, like the UNLV.
Through conversations with this group along with Robert Rippee (Director, Hospitality Lab at the International Gaming Institute), Liz Lewis (Economic Development Manager, Office of Economic Development), and Miles created the Black Fire Innovation concept and worked towards what currently exists today and what it will be in the future.
Gardner is the master developer for the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park. Through an RFP process, they were selected to help find tenants for the park and develop the park. They own the building but lease the land from the UNLV Research Foundation. “It’s great to have this collaboration as they put up the funds to construct the building, taking a burden off the university’s shoulders. Black Fire Innovation is housed within the fourth and third floors of the new building,” Miles explains.
Can you give us further insights into the specific activities that Black Fire will host, and the resources it will be offering?
The fourth floor will house UNLV’s Office of Economic Development Office as well as Caesars Innovation group. The fourth floor will also contain a mock casino floor with an eSports Arena, Virtual Reality area, casino floor, hotel rooms of the future, functioning café and bar, sportsbook, and new table and slot games. The idea is to present a living lab where new ideas can be tested. It is not specifically centered on hospitality innovations either. Cybersecurity can be tested at the eSports arena; simulation/modeling can take place in the VR area; robots will be active in the space, etc. The partnership builds on existing strengths within the region but the innovations have multiple uses or come from disciplines such as biotechnology – a dual purpose area. The third floor will house business acceleration and incubation activities for start-up companies including offices for rent, a maker space where prototypes can be built and a software development lab. There will also be a multi-purpose “conference/display” room. We anticipate running student cohorts through the space to provide them with specific educational training on how to build a business. They’ll also work with industry on venture and seed capital, and multiple service providers.
Could you detail the specific contributions from each of the partners for the hub, and how it will be supported? Are there any particular goals or deadlines under the partnership?
Gardner, Caesars, and UNLV are all contributing resources, both tangible and intangible to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. They are all working together to make the space accessible with all of the right resources and tools as well as agreements to engage with the community at large and their own individual innovation aspirations. The only deadline is trying to open the space in October and have it ready for business by then.
What specific results do you expect to see; could it become a milestone in the way the gaming industry's research and evolution are conceived? How and in what time range do you estimate we could see the hub's developments reflected in US and international gaming venues, including eSports?
We expect to see the next innovations in the integrated resort industry to be developed at Black Fire Innovation. We believe these innovations will drive the next evolution of gaming and entertainment at these properties. These will also lead to economic diversification activities as well, similar to the dual-use described before creating diverse economies within Nevada, nation, and internationally. We want to be the leader in these types of innovations, along with driving the future of eSports. We are hoping the space will generate the next innovations in this industry as well, especially given the expertise that we have at the International Gaming Institute with Bo Bernhard, Robert Rippee, and Brett Abarbanel. Although the idea of a business accelerator/incubator is not new, we do believe this public-private partnership is unique in the gaming industry and also fairly unique among university and private company collaborations. We also expect this to bring companies specializing in software, engineering, computer science, robotics, autonomous systems, entertainment engineering, audio/visual companies, and IT to the region, thus diversifying the economy and generating new innovations that they will also take to market. It usually takes time – five to seven years – to see a commercially viable product generated from an idea. With these new resources, we suspect we can reduce that amount of time. Again, much of this lag is due to lack of resources or gap fillers to drive the idea forward.
Do you think the global gaming industry is currently running below its potential in terms of technological innovation? What specific uses of emerging technologies could be globally applied in the short term, and what criteria and considerations would be involved in terms of localization for each of the regional markets?
I don’t believe the industry is behind, and in fact, there is a heightened focus on innovating. These can be integrated, but how they are integrated and where the real innovation will be taking place, along with the creation of new knowledge and intellectual property, are the questions that need to be addressed in development. Additional considerations to focus on for any new product include: Will they buy it? Is it what the customer actually wants? Where and when do we implement? What revenue generating products may this replace? Will it do better? Black Fire provides a space where these questions can be taken into consideration and tested before making it to the mainstream. Rather than taking gaming space out of commission at an operating property, there is now a living lab at the research park that provides a near identical business experience.
Which one of the research sub-areas do you see as the most relevant for gaming industry? Is it the combination of blockchain, AI, machine learning, Big Data and virtual and augmented reality what could bring the key to attract the new and upcoming generations of players to land-based casinos?
I think all of these will play a role. The broader scope is advancing the experience, making it attractive to new generations, taking the entertainment and gaming portion to the next level. There will be complexity in this and some goals will need to be set, but we think Black Fire Innovation will allow multiple research sub areas to be tested at any given time.
What role will this new kind of research play in the growing sports betting business across the US? What room for new innovation scales do you see in that vertical, including eSports?
In addition to fostering innovation in sports betting technology, I’m hopeful that new rules and regulations are generated at Black Fire Innovation. UNLV, through IGI, already has thought leaders in this area and now we will have a stronger partnership with the industry to continue to drive these conversations. This extends to applications in eSports and eSports betting. We also will be investigating research questions across the spectrum, such as (e)sports medicine applications, media and communications involvement in eSports industry development, and use of AI in betting mechanisms.
Nevada’s Assembly Bill 221 expands the state’s technology and manufacturing workforce by giving those 18 to 20 years old legal status as a “gaming employee”. Could this measure impact somehow on this new project, or have a correlation in terms of younger people encouraged to work in the gaming technology sector?
UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hospitality has been training the future gaming and hospitality workforce for years, and many of these students fit into this age group. The mock casino and hospitality floor at the research park will continue to build on our world-class facilities. I believe the industry is going through its next transformation and I do believe this will excite younger professionals. The idea that integrated resorts are just casinos and hotel rooms is an outdated perception. In fact, integrated resorts are the next generation of entertainment, eSports, and gamifying the experience.