Nick Naclerio: 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award
Nicholas Naclerio develops and commercializes innovative technologies in semiconductors, genomics and health care
When Nick Naclerio (E’83) first stepped onto Duke’s campus as a high school senior looking to study engineering in 1979, he ran into a bit of a problem; the official tour didn’t cover the engineering school. After asking the tour guide how to find it, Naclerio was directed down an unpaved path next to the Duke Chapel that led down to the lonesome Hudson Hall.
At first glance, he wasn’t very impressed. Other schools that actually had engineering on the tour featured rooms filled with fancy, futuristic looking gear and laboratory equipment. The windows he found himself looking through in Hudson were no match.
But then a young secretary new to the job stepped in and asked Naclerio what he was looking for. After explaining his situation, she guided him back to Marion Shepard, dean of undergraduate affairs at the time, who gave Naclerio a pitch that resonated with him.
“Dean Shepard put me at ease and told me that there were three reasons to consider coming to Duke as an undergraduate, rather than one of those big-name engineering schools with more extensive research facilities,” Naclerio said.
Dean Shepard explained that Duke professors pride themselves on their teaching, not just their publishing, and that half of the classes he’d take would be outside of engineering, where Duke had world-class professors in every department. He also explained that college is about more than classroom learning, and being immersed in a liberal arts university would teach him to communicate with non-engineers—a skill valuable to business leaders. And if Naclerio decided to go to one of those schools with all the fancy equipment after graduating, he could rest assured that his academic foundation would be solid.
“And everything he said turned out to be true,” Naclerio said.
During his time on campus, Naclerio received the full benefit of an engineering school nestled within a liberal arts college. He remembers Dean Shepard had his E83 Materials course visit a nearby cigarette factory, find a discarded metal part and analyze why it failed, and he enjoyed taking classes in philosophy, religion and political science. Naclerio also took a class on astronomy and astrophysics, which turned out to be useful when he ended up developing a quantum detector for a radio telescope and meeting Stephen Hawking during a year of graduate studies at Cambridge University.
After his well-rounded undergraduate education, Naclerio became an officer working in a lab of the United States Air Force—an experience that he says proved to be a great leadership opportunity that helped him transition from bench science to the boardroom. He also went to some of those schools with the bigger and fancier equipment. He earned a master’s degree in materials science from the University of Cambridge, where he was a Winston Churchill Scholar, and a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland.
Naclerio then spent seven years with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he was an assistant director in the electronics technology office. During his time there, he worked as a manager for a unique public/private partnership called SEMATECH. A half-billion dollar partnership between the Federal government and 14 American semiconductor manufacturers, the project helped solve common problems and regain competitiveness for the U.S. companies, which had been surpassed by Japan. His work with SEMATECH earned Naclerio an Arthur S. Flemming Award, which honors outstanding federal employees from all areas of federal service.
After DARPA, Naclerio joined Motorola and became interested in a growing endeavor called the Human Genome Project. After starting Motorola Life Sciences to build better tools for performing genomics research, he left the company when their cellphone business began to falter and began working with a series of genomic-tool startup companies—including a then-fledgling company called Illumina.
“The highlight of my career was being part of the leadership team at Illumina as we built one of the most important life science tools companies in history,” Naclerio said. “Our work has enabled numerous breakthroughs in clinical diagnostics and pharmaceutical development.” For example, Illumina’s technology has enabled new paradigms such as non-invasive prenatal testing, blood-based pan-cancer screening and consumer genetic testing.
In 2016, Naclerio formed Illumina Ventures to focus full-time on building companies to take advantage of the advances in genomics made possible by Illumina. To date, the program has invested over $500 million into more than two dozen pioneering companies. And they’re not only focused on human genomics.
“I think that the next application of genomics is going to be in fighting climate change,” Naclerio said. “Especially by adapting our agriculture and food processing to be more efficient and produce less greenhouse gas.”
When asked what advice Naclerio has for current students, he says, “Take full advantage of what Duke has to offer. It is a unique place with so many opportunities inside and outside the classroom.” For graduates, he says, “Stay open to new ideas and changes in career direction. From the Air Force to DARPA to a semiconductor company to biotech start-ups to venture capital industry, the most interesting and lucrative experiences in my career could not have been planned for.”
More than three decades after graduation, Naclerio found himself back on campus in much the same situation as the first time he arrived, but this time with his three children. While he was a regular for returning to Duke for reunions to keep up the life-long friendships he forged while he was a student, he became even more involved when two of his children decided to attend school in Durham. His son, Nicholas, was a Pratt undergraduate from 2013-2017, while his daughter, Maria, just graduated from Trinity College in 2020.
Naclerio has witnessed much of the growth that Duke Engineering has experienced over the past several decades. The engineering school has, he says, grown to be very much a part of west campus, while its undergraduate programs are now nationally recognized and its graduate research programs have grown exponentially. And he can even spot plenty of fancy machines through the windows in all of the new buildings.
After his son’s first tour of the engineering school, the father and son duo sat in a modern auditorium and listened to Connie Simmons, the longtime and beloved associate dean for undergraduate affairs, describe the many programs now offered at Duke Engineering. Afterward, Naclerio recalls, they met Dean Simmons in her office, where she gave much the same pitch that he had heard from Dean Shepard three decades earlier about what makes Pratt so special.
“We ended up telling stories about my days back at Duke,” Naclerio said. “And as it turned out, Dean Simmons was the same young secretary who found me wandering Hudson Hall when I was just 17!”