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University-Industry Engagement Advisor

In “new model,” UIUC and IBM launch 10-year deal worth more than $200M

By David Schwartz
Published: July 20th, 2021

A detailed article on the UIUC-IBM partnership appears in the July issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

Hailing what both partners consider a “new model of collaboration,” the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and IBM have reached a ten-year research agreement whose focal point will be a major new research center for exploration in quantum information, high-performance computing, hybrid cloud and networked environments. Total investments, which will include not only IBM and UIUC, but also the State of Illinois, will exceed $200 million.

The research center, called the IBM-Illinois Discovery Accelerator Institute, will be located within the university’s Grainger College of Engineering. It will include “deep” collaborations to develop communities of discovery across IBM, Grainger Engineering and the UIUC campus; research funding for UIUC in key areas of research, hiring of additional faculty and talent at UIUC; and a new campus facility for research in computing and quantum technologies.

“We have had many collaborations with IBM — the most significant being the Center for Cognitive Computing Systems Research (,” says Rashid Bashir, PhD, professor of engineering and dean of The Grainger College of Engineering. “We’re completing five years now, and in discussions with leadership at IBM — including their CEO, Vice President of Research, and Vice President of Hybrid Clouds — we talked broadly about how we could grow our collective impact together. At this point in history, advances in this country and the world in AI and cloud, hybrid cloud, and new technologies like quantum, [along with] sustainability, were really important to both of us.”

Those discussions led to more specific talks about how to develop new and innovative partnerships. “How could we collaborate more?” Bashir shares. “In what additional areas, in what other technologies? How could we work together in deeper ways?” The conversations culminated, says Bashir, in the “new model” of collaboration which informs the agreement.

How does this model differ from more traditional collaborations? “Generally, in most such partnerships industry says, ‘Okay, here are some specific goals that have to be met, or problems to be solved,’” he explains. “‘We’ll provide the funding; the faculty will work on those projects via grad students and themselves.’ That’s not a symmetrical model. We really wanted to develop ‘communities of discovery,’ where IBM-ers could be much more deeply engaged with our college. We want them to be on student committees, for students to actually spend time at IBM as part of their PhD presentations. We want them to actually teach in our college.”

In other words, he continues, the model involves much deeper engagement from both sides. “Faculty and students spend time at IBM, learning industry trends in more applied areas,” says Bashir. “For example, in quantum there’s quite a bit of basic science to be done along with building systems — which bridges basic and applied work,” and which applies to AI and hybrid cloud as well. In short, he summarizes, the vision is for “deeper, much more intimate engagement, truly collaborating with many more people from IBM.”

“It’s a new model in a couple of senses,” adds Jeffrey Welser, PhD, COO of IBM Research and vice president for exploratory science and university collaborations. “One, from an interaction point of view, there is a lot of funding for research, having them interact with us on projects. But we’re trying to set up much more of a strong, joint partnership where researchers on both sides work together. The closest analogy is what we do with MIT in Cambridge, but the advantage is that we’re physically co-located there. In this case, it’s our first attempt to try to do this [when we’re] not co-located with any of our research sites.”

While such an arrangement will require more use of virtual contact, says Welser, “we will be sending some people there, but we want to exchange people. We want people coming to us as visiting scholars — like a postdoc or faculty member who works on our site for a year. Also, we want to get our researchers more involved with students, mentoring thesis committees and teaching courses. That’s one aspect that makes this different than in the past.”

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