Jim Wyant always wanted to teach and to found a company.
Jan. 31, 2020

When he was offered an assistant professor position at the University of Arizona 45 years ago, he was ready to take a leap of faith and move from industry into academia.

“I was so excited when I was given the offer. I didn't even negotiate a salary or anything,” he says.

As Wyant’s academic career progressed and he led the evolution of what was a center for optical sciences at Arizona into a college, he also cofounded two optics companies.

“You have to have something that people want,” Wyant told SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, reflecting on his business successes. “But ultimately, you have to love what you're doing. Even if I had gone bankrupt, I still would have had so much fun doing what I was doing.”

Wyant’s entrepreneurship generated benefits for him and his students. He recruited many excellent employees from his classrooms.

“They were so smart; they taught me so many things.”

Wyant was able to continue his university roles as both businesses began and grew. Out of gratitude to the university for its flexibility, Wyant and his family last year followed a $10 million scholarship gift made in 2013 with a $20 million gift. Wyant’s generosity and leadership inspired UArizona to rename the college the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences.

“This is money I made in optics — not money I made on the stock market or in real estate — it's money I made in optics. And — look around you —optics is everywhere! It's exciting to think about the future, because optics continues to grow,” he says.

The recent gift is the largest for faculty support in university history. It empowers the college to recruit a minimum of 10 endowed chairs. And, as with the Friends of Tucson Optics Scholarship campaign, this gift offers matching funds to inspire others to give.

Friends of Tucson Optics Scholarship


When Liliana Ruiz Diaz (pictured above) graduated in May, she had several job offers, and she chose Facebook Reality Labs in Washington. She’s now fulfilling her dream to create new technologies and devices.

Diaz was grateful to receive a Friends of Tucson Optics Scholarship. Thanks to James Wyant and other donors, all first-year doctoral students in the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences are awarded tuition and a $20,000 stipend.

The award gave Diaz financial stability and the time to find a research project that proved a good fit for the remainder of her time in the program. And it had another effect on Diaz.

“I really like Dr. Wyant’s vision. It encourages me to do something similar to help students once I have a good career, because I know the struggle.”