Nick Nichols, an administrator and honorary alumnus who worked at Caltech for 53 years, passed away on January 14, 2023.
Known for his leadership on campus and at JPL, Nichols brought an entrepreneurial spirit to his post as director of the Industrial Relations Center (IRC) and formed lasting bonds between the Caltech community and the technology business sector.
After graduating from Yale in 1954 with a degree in economics and attending UCLA for graduate studies, Nichols joined JPL in 1957. He worked on projects including the Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor unmanned missions and served as manager of planning and business operations for energy and technology applications, manager of external affairs, and special assistant to the director. While at JPL, Nichols also served as a consultant to the UCLA School of Business Administration.
For three years starting in 1967, Nichols worked at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur as a visiting professor of business management, forming part of the cohort from Caltech that assisted the Indian government in establishing and administering the university.
In 1983, Nichols was appointed director of the IRC, which offered executive education courses and management training for business leaders in the technology and science sectors. Soon after, Nichols founded the Caltech/MIT Enterprise Forum, renamed the Caltech Entrepreneurs Forum in 2013. For 40 years, the forum has offered monthly programs and other events highlighting young companies and providing business advice, financial support, and networking opportunities for the technology-based venture community.
Nichols played a pivotal role in fostering the relationship between Caltech and business leaders, connecting innovative students, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. Among other programs the IRC sponsored was the Business Plan Competition, which awarded $10,000 in start-up capital to each of two winning teams. Open to students, faculty, alumni, and staff across campus and JPL, the competition rewarded aspiring Caltech entrepreneurs with well-formed start-up pitches, providing funds to winners but also exposure to potential investors for all participants.
The IRC was rated third in executive education worldwide by the Wall Street Journal in 1993. It offered over 100 courses on the management of technology and innovation, strategy and global development, leadership development, and new venture formation to executives from around the world. Nichols was a generous mentor to entrepreneurial Caltech students; he would allow them to take IRC courses at no change, and many of them went on to found new ventures. But after the 2008 recession, Caltech dissolved the IRC, folding many of its functions into what is now the Center for Technology Management and Education (CTME).
Despite the closure of the IRC, the Caltech Entrepreneurs Forum persisted. In 2010, Nichols went into semi-retirement, but he remained active in the forum as a member of its executive committee. According to longtime forum member Michael Krieger (BS '63), Nichols participated in the forum until recently. "Until he became ill, Nick briefly introduced each program with a graciousness and wit that well fit the persona conjured up by the given name Gaylord and his herringbone jacket," Krieger says.
Jeff Lawrence, who attended the Entrepreneurs Forum in the 1980s as a newly minted engineer, says he credits the forum with educating him on how to start and run a business: he co-founded Trillium Digital Systems, a telecommunications source code software company that Intel acquired for several hundred million dollars in 2000. Years later, while moderating a program for the Entrepreneurs Forum, Lawrence said the only thing left for him to accomplish was "to become Nick Nichols." According to Krieger, Nichols calmly took off his name badge and handed it to Lawrence.
Lynn Foster, another fellow member of the forum, remembered Nichols as "a classy Caltech person whose elegant, traditional New England demeanor quietly changed the world."
Nichols is survived by his son Michael Nichols, daughter Melinda Nichols, and four grandchildren.