Uncovering Advanced Science, Technology, and Startups at the University of Illinois Research Park

Sep 30, 2016   |   Adam J. Hecktman

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Photo: By Jlfergu2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

If you want to get to Champaign-Urbana from Chicago, here is my suggested route:

  • Depart the city heading south.
  • Drive through high corn fields and lush soy fields.
  • When you feel your mind being blown, you have arrived.

Specifically, you have arrived at the University of Illinois Research Park where both enterprise companies and startups bask in the glow of advanced science and research. I made the trek with Laura Freichs, the Director of Research Park, as my guide for the experience.

First, let me describe the physical space — 15 buildings over a sprawling 200 acres of space adjacent to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus. There are, at any given time, 100 corporate companies with corporate innovation centers housed there. There are an additional 50 startups sprouting out of the beautiful and collaborative EnterpriseWorks tech incubator housed at Research Park.

Let’s cover the corporate innovation centers first. Some of the largest companies in the US are doing research and development at Research Park, much of it focused on data, advanced computation, and advanced modeling. The companies doing research vary in industry, from Abbott and Abvie in life sciences, to Capital One and CME Group in financial services, to ABInBev and Dow in process manufacturing.

What kind of work do these corporate titans do at Research Park?

Caterpillar not only houses a simulation center and an advanced data innovation lab at Research Park, they have also employed over 500 student interns, more than 100 of whom have landed jobs as engineers at Cat. Yahoo has 165 employees doing advanced software development and research, and created a home base for their Hadoop Center of Excellence and Data team. These companies all see access to a top talent pipeline as a key benefit, not to mention the early look at trends in the innovation and data spaces they get by being located in close proximity to UIUC.

For me, the corporate partners were the icing on the cake. I was there to learn about the startups. Specifically, I was looking to meet with startups that had either a civic tech or smart cities focus. I wasn’t disappointed. Laura and her team brought me to EnterpriseWorks , a 43,000 sq ft incubator. EnterpriseWorks houses startups that are heavily invested in science-based commercialization opportunities…heavy, heavy science.   Given that UIUC is home to some of the world’s top engineering talent and computing resources (their Blue Waters supercomputer is the fastest in the academic world), this makes sense.

Some of the companies and researchers I met included:

  • Dr. Kaustubh Bhalerao, a researcher in biological nanotechnology, who has been working on ways to dramatically reduce the cost of testing nitrogen content in the soil. Nitrogen fertilization is essential for profitable crop production, and optimizing for nitrogen improves the food supply.
  • Dr. Yanfeng Ouyang and Rebekah Yang of TEST (Transportation Engineering Solutions & Technology), a spinoff from a U of I project for the Illinois Tollway. They look at the sustainability of roadways across the lifecycle, from building them to using them. They use advanced science and engineering research to build tools that will improve environmental and economic impacts of transportation infrastructure (both roads and rail).
  • AE Machines and their Chief Technology Officer, Amy LaViers, could have had me for the entire day if they would let me play with their product all day. Amy had Ardiuno littleBits sprawled across a table. Her company built a drag and drop design interface so that the young and non-technical can have fun learning about the internet of things. It will truly broaden the opportunity for IoT.
  • Tim Sinclair, the CEO of Ringr with a seasoned radio voice (he was actually a sports announcer in an earlier life). Ringr solves the problem of remote interviews on your podcast sounding, well, remote. With his technology, a remote conversation sounds like you are in the same room.
  • Quicket Solutions, whose CEO, Christiaan Burner, showed me how his Software as a Service solution for law enforcement can bring a notoriously antiquated field into the age of the cloud. Any law enforcement agency, with low risk and no up-front investment, can turn paper-based reporting evidence management, and compliance into a process served up from the cloud to any of a number of endpoints.
  • Granular, a Bay area creator of farm management software ERP software, has a regional HQ in Research Park. They were one of a number of businesses in the AgriTech space. Given that the region is heavily invested in agriculture, it makes sense to do your research where you have access to and input from your future customer base.

These are the people Laura with whom Laura gets to spend each day. Every group I met with pushed my adrenaline levels just a little bit higher. What truly capped it for me was my visit to the Cline Center for Democracy, a group that brings data, democracy, and the human condition together with research like I had never seen before. Story for another blog.

And if I sound like a fan…well…I was Class of 1988.

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.