Industry-Sponsored Research Week

UNH employs “sandpits” for targeted interactions with industry partners

By David Schwartz
Published: January 14th, 2020

When you hear the phrase “playing in the sandbox,” it often conjures up a vision of children amusing themselves together in a rather confined but enjoyable space. A number of universities — particularly in Asia and Europe — have loosely adapted this concept to a specific type of event they call “sandpits,” where academia, industry, and sometimes government can “play” together while addressing a key topic of the day.

The international University Industry Innovation Network (UIIN), for example, sponsored an AI sandpit in Sydney, Australia last February. “Sandpits are focused industry convening events that connect industry to lead academics based on particular areas of research,” UIIN explained in its promotion for the event. “It has shown to be an efficient, creative and high energy way of bringing researchers, businesspeople, and government representatives together into the same room to explore collaborations.”

The University of New Hampshire has clearly bought into the concept, running a series of biannual sandpits over the past several years. The latest sandpit, which focused on food and agriculture, took place on November 7. “When I came here (about six months ago) we had one geared around advanced manufacturing,” relates Marc Eichenberger, director of corporate engagement, who says the sandpits were originated at UNH by Marc Sedam, Associate Vice Provost for Innovation and New Ventures and Managing Director of UNHInnovation, after he learned about them from tech transfer veteran Dr. Kevin Cullen, former CEO of Innovations at the University of New South Wales and now  Vice President of Innovation and Economic Development at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. “The main notion nvolves getting a bunch of university experts and researchers and mixing them up with industry people and government people so you can put them in a sandbox and they can ‘play,’” he says. “And they have to be from the same field.”

As an R1 university, he continues, UNH has “a whole lot of expertise in a number of areas, so we need to focus on bringing together university experts and relevant industry [to specifically zero in on one of them]. If we just did ‘everything’ and ‘anything’ it would be too complex.”

The subject areas, Eichenberger explains, are determined by, among other things, what businesses are important in New Hampshire. “For example, aerospace and defense had one, and then advanced manufacturing,” he notes. “It also depends on what’s going on in the sector, what expertise the university has, and if there’s enough interest in the region.”

Food and agriculture were a natural, he adds, because of UNH’s status as a land grant institution, and because of the technological revolution occurring in the industry. For example, he says, the sensor arena is growing to help identify fields where fertilizer is needed, and to address carbon impact. “There’s a whole slew of sensor tech data manipulation,” he says, “and AI to help determine how we grow and forest. Tractors now have sensors in the front indicating how much material has been released in the back when in the field. It’s very timely and exciting.”

A detailed article on UNH’s “sandpit” events appears in the December issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For complete subscription details, click here.

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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