Industry-Sponsored Research Week

UofSC partnership with IBM seeds an entire ‘partner network’


By David Schwartz
Published: April 6th, 2021

A detailed article on the “partner network” born out of an initial partnership between IBM and the University of South Carolina appears in the March issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

The announcement of a recent partnership involving the University of South Carolina, Nephron Pharmaceuticals, Yaskawa Motoman, and Siemens tells the story of a collaboration between a university’s faculty and students and several industry partners to develop an innovative pharmaceutical solution. But this collaboration, impressive as it is, tells only part of the story.

The full story begins several years ago, with UofSC beginning what would become a complex strategic relationship with IBM. “IBM is one of our big partners,” shares Bill Kirkland, executive director of the UofSC Office of Innovation, Partnerships, and Economic Engagement (OIPEE). “On the IoT side, that partnership formed with them about six years ago.” Soon after that, the university and IBM broadened their collaboration to open the $25 million Center for Applied Innovation to develop solutions for predictive analytics and maintenance. Then, in 2018, the 15,000 square-foot Digital Transformation Lab was created — an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) research lab for real-world applications in areas such as robotics, visual inspection, autonomous drones, and smart home appliances.

Today, Kirkland says, 150 people from IBM work on campus. But beyond that, IBM has introduced the university to a number of its own industry contacts — including Siemens. “As you can imagine, IBM and Siemens work together,” says Kirkland. “That got us two separate things: We formed a partnership with [Seimens’] academic business unit three or four years ago; they donated in-kind software with commercial value of $628 million. From that, it was integrated into our College of Engineering and Computing” in a collaboration headed by mechanical engineering professor Ramy Harik, PhD. “We also expanded the Siemens partnership to include equipment donations — part our Digital Transformation Lab.”

That lab, he continues, includes among its partners IBM, Yaskawa, and Samsung. “IBM again helped us team in Japan for partnership with Yaskawa, specifically the Motoman group in America, which at one point donated robots worth millions of dollars,” says Kirkland.

All of this led to what Kirkland calls a “partner network” in which the university plays the role of a solution development lab. “If a company is involved in manufacturing [and has a problem], we build a solution,” he explains. “Companies [introduced to UofSC by IBM] are briefed and then we have them come down to our lab, where we provide real-life demonstrations.” Before COVID-19, he says, three or four companies a month would come to the executive briefing center and then to the lab.

“Ramy then develops solutions,” he continues, adding, “we are a referral university. IBM brings a partner in and we build a solution. When IBM sells to the market, we get a percentage of the total value to market; it’s another way to get research dollars into the university.”

As a team, Kirland says, “Ramy and the students build real-life solutions for the market, focused on advanced manufacturing, aerospace, automotive. We also now have partnerships with Boeing, BMW, and a number of other companies.”

“The partnership is somewhat of a perfect match,” adds Harik. “The university, in its own wisdom, decided we needed to do groundwork with industry and engage them in a very meaningful way. We did not just want our graduate engineers to be good in the theoretic world, but to make sure they were job-ready from day one. Bill brings in the contacts, discusses issues, thinks about strategic planning, and what’s happening in South Carolina. These things trickle down to, ‘okay, engineering school, can you attack this problem? Who on the faculty can do this?’ I’m in the manufacturing faculty; when that word comes to me, we take the challenge. Together we try to create a theme and a solution to a real industrial problem. We’ve done for so many industry partners.” Harik adds that smaller companies are also now part of this integrated partnership.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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