Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Iowa State’s partnership with Deere a model of long-term strategic collaboration


By David Schwartz
Published: May 18th, 2020

A detailed article on the ISU partnership with Deere appears in the May issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription details, click here.

There are many successful university-industry relationships across the country, but it’s likely there are few that check as many of the collaboration “boxes” as the one between Iowa State University and its industry partner, heavy equipment maker Deere & Co. Here are just a few examples:

  • Deere has employed close to 2,000 Iowa State alumni;
  • At any one time, about 20 faculty members from different disciplines interface with Deere;
  • A significant number of interns and full-time employees are hired by Deere each year;
  • Research collaborations are ongoing in multiple units.

This longstanding and comprehensive partnership also includes capstone projects, Deere participation in college and department advisory councils, and philanthropic contributions.

And in recent years, Deere has committed to significant co-location at Iowa State, including the opening of a technology innovation center in 2018 and an engineering research facility in 2019, both in the university’s research park.

Beyond what is already in place, a team consisting of numerous university departments and Deere representatives has been discussing strategic initiatives covering the next five to 10 years. They include:

  • Increasing diversity in STEM areas;
  • Long-range workforce development (IT, automation, data science);
  • More extensive research collaboration in key areas like cybersecurity, manufacturing systems engineering, and precision farming.

“This is one of our longest running partnerships — as a whole, about 25 years,” reports Matthew Darr, PhD, professor and Kinze Manufacturing Fellow. “We’ve had a master agreement in place since 2006, which tells you the depth of the relationship; it’s more than just a one-off.”

Darr sees the relationship as a “win-win” for the university and its industrial partner, and one that “checks every box we consider” when seeking industry engagement. “It allows us to help contribute to innovation and projects, a direct opportunity to have positive impact on stakeholders globally, and also leads to a lot of unique opportunities for our students — like internships and full career opportunities,” he says. “Also, Deere is involved in the classrooms — they serve as a voice to make sure we’re teaching the right material and offering the right content. And they’re there to put resources in the classroom as well.”

Darr does not see such partnerships as being defined by giant steps. “We really believe partnerships are built brick by brick,” he says. “We communicate with Deere very frequently through direct projects we’re involved in, but at least on a quarterly basis we touch base to make sure we’re in good alignment.”

Strong, regular communication, he continues, is key. “We listen to each other, we think about how things we’re doing will impact each other, and we always take feedback on ways we can improve or help the partner connect in an even deeper way,” says Darr. “It’s rare that we jump to some big major outcome; success is based on 1,000 little wins adding up to long-term strengths.”

The classroom environment, he continues, is a prime example. “Universities do not offer courses because one company says they should, but Deere has been very helpful talking to us and communicating about the direction their business is going, and the types of people they are looking for today and in the future,” Darr shares. “We really value that; they have insight, and we have the ability to shift gears to make sure we create the right people for those long-term jobs.”

Another “brick,” he adds, involves working together on the diversity/inclusion initiative. “We want to recruit a very diverse set of students on campus, and they want to recruit very diverse career employees; we mutually benefit by partnering in those areas,” states Darr.

He cautions against understating the importance of that philosophical connection. “Industry partners find lots of talented people at many universities,” Darr concedes. “We’ve surveyed our partners, and it always comes back to the people — not the expertise. Are there shared values? Similar passions? That’s what drives the strength of a partnership.”

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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