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CBE alumnus Doug Smith remembered as an independent spirit and innovator

March 9, 2021 - by Kim Delker

photo of Doug Smith
Douglas M. Smith

The University of New Mexico and Albuquerque community is mourning the loss of Douglas M. Smith, a prominent technology entrepreneur, alumnus and former faculty member from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Smith died January 12 at his residence in Albuquerque. He was 67.

He said that he always had a love of chemistry and could often be found playing with chemistry sets as a child. Originally from Rochester, New York, he attended Clarkson University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. He pursued a career at Unilever in New York City, then later decided that being near a national lab would be a great benefit. He moved to Albuquerque and pursued a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at UNM, earning his degree in 1982.

He became a Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering at UNM and was the first director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Microengineered Ceramics (now the Center for Microengineered Materials) at UNM. He was a member of the UNM faculty from 1984-1998.

In 1994, Smith founded NanoPore Inc. From this technology, which involved the use of nanoporous materials for thermal and electrical insulation and adsorption cooling, several spinoff product lines were developed, including Nanoglass LLC, NanoCool LLC, NanoBev LLC, NanoSorb GmbH, and NanoFrio LLC. Smith also was one of the founders of Cool Logistics Ltd. He held numerous patents for these technologies.

In 2016, Smith was awarded the School of Engineering’s Distinguished Alumni Award for the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Smith was also well-known for his quirky sense of humor, which was on display in the video of his acceptance speech (found at 10:33).

He also was an active member of the UNM community, serving on the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering advisory board, and worked with students in the department— especially in senior design projects. In addition, he helped shape the department’s program to revolutionize chemical engineering education.

Smith’s hobbies included cooking, especially Asian and Italian. “Cooking is like chemistry,” he said in 2016.

He said he tried (and failed) to retire in Kauai, then concluded that his main passion was his work.

“I love doing what I do. I’ll never retire.”

He is survived by his daughter, Hattie Foote; a son-in-law, Christopher Foote; and his grandchildren, Lux and Hunter Foote. He is also survived by his mother, Doris Smith, and brother, Jeff Smith. He also leaves many cherished cousins and friends. Smith was preceded in death by his father, Robert Smith, and sister, Christine Smith.

A Celebration of Life will be held when we are all able to gather again. Memorial contributions may be made to New Heart Center for Wellness, New Mexico Appleseed, UNM Cancer Center. A guest book is available on the French Funerals & Cremations website.

Many former colleagues at UNM and in the community offered their remembrances about Smith:

School of Engineering Dean Christos Christodoulou:
“Doug has been a gentleman, a scholar, a successful businessman and a great supporter for the School of Engineering. He had a huge impact on our school at all levels.”

Joseph L. Cecchi, dean emeritus, School of Engineering:
"Doug Smith was an outstanding, accomplished researcher and innovator, with an ever-ready smile and quick wit. Our community has lost a great colleague and friend."

Abhaya Datye, chair and Distinguished Professor of chemical and biological engineering:
“He was an outstanding teacher and researcher and a true people person, helping to recruit new faculty and students to UNM. He had a keen sense of how to take a novel research finding and transform it into a patentable idea and a commercial technology. He mentored a large number of students and postdocs who went on to distinguished careers in industry and national labs.”

Jeffrey Brinker, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering:
“Doug was one of a kind. As a Distinguished National Lab professor working at the AML, I benefited tremendously from Doug’s vision and initiatives. Doug and I collaborated at UNM for many years on the synthesis and characterization of porous materials. Doug’s small business endeavors really highlighted his creativity, inventiveness and engineering prowess. He was an exceptional chemical engineer and free spirit, and we will miss him dearly.”

Plamen Atanassov, formerly Distinguished Professor of chemical and biological engineering at UNM and now Chancellor’s Professor at University of California, Irvine:
“Doug Smith brought to fruition ‘micro-engineered materials’ through sol-gel and aerosol processing to create the foundations of nano-materials engineering at UNM. He is responsible for establishing the joint Sandia-UNM-LANL Advanced Materials Laboratory and helping to jump start UNM into world class research before throwing himself into entrepreneurship. He created product lines that bore the ideas of his academic research into practice and gave back to UNM and our department his wisdom through his participation in our advisory board. He has left a void...”

Elizabeth Kuuttila, director of UNM Lobo Rainforest Innovations:
“Doug Smith was an amazing entrepreneur, starting a number of companies during his career. His success in helping build not only successful companies, but contributing to the economy in Albuquerque with substantial job creation, was well-appreciated.”

Gabriel Lopez, professor of chemical and biological engineering:
"Doug Smith was the first person to recruit me to UNM, and he made my appointment happen. I am deeply grateful for the opportunities he opened for me. Doug was a catalyst; he got things done. I always admired this quality and also Doug’s intellect, creativity, eloquence and personable nature. He is greatly missed by many."

Timothy Ward, professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering:
“Doug’s passing is such a great loss to the world of science and engineering, and, especially, to the many young engineers whose careers he influenced so powerfully. I was one of those young engineers. I met Doug at Montana State University in 1984, where he was beginning his career as a professor, and I was taking my first classes in a chemical engineering M.S. program. Though he is probably best known for research accomplishments, he was a brilliant teacher, unlike any teacher I have known. He taught with a high level of mathematical rigor, but constantly tied math to physical insight and common sense. For me, his lessons had a lifelong impact on how I approached engineering problems … Doug had remarkable passion toward science, teaching, his entrepreneurial ventures, and his friends … His passion for work and life was contagious, and the achievements of so many, myself included, started with a spark ignited by Doug. He was one of the most brilliant, enigmatic and eclectic people I have had the privilege to know and work with. He will be dearly missed.”

Steve Wallace, principal scientist, Kevothermal:
"Like many people that we all know, I owe my career to Doug Smith. Doug is one of the founders of the Vacuum Insulation Panels manufacturing business, where I still work for the company Kevothermal that he helped found. Doug is known worldwide for his original contributions to porous materials and VIPs. I learned a lot about the business of technology from Doug. He will be missed by many people for many reasons."

John Jones, engineering and maintenance manager, Pelican Biothermal (formerly NanoCool):
“In the 4 years I worked with Doug, a mentorship evolved into a friendship. He had the ability to make you believe you could accomplish whatever problem was placed in front of you. He fostered ingenuity while sharing stories and laughter along the way. I will forever be grateful to Doug and the opportunities he provided me. He certainly will be missed.”