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VA Tech pushes to take its industry engagement efforts international

By David Schwartz
Published: November 30th, 2021

A detailed article on Virginia Tech’s push for international industry collaborations appears in the November issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here. 

The Virginia Tech Office of Research and Innovation is making a concerted effort to take its corporate engagement efforts international. In fact, these efforts have gone so far as setting up Virginia Tech Centers in other nations, linking with local institutions to create and pursue collaborations with key industry partners.

That’s music to the ears of Daniel Sui, vice president for research and innovation, who came to his position about a year ago with the academic training and professional goals that made his hiring a natural fit.

“I’m a geographer by training,” he shares. “I’ve been in 35 different countries and have had a lot of international collaborations because of the work I do.”

It is part of the university’s strategic plan ambition, he continues, to become “a global land grant university, improving its visibility on the international stage. In order to do that, you have to conduct cutting-edge research with potentially broader impact,” he notes. “But to have that broader impact on all of the major changes facing humanity — climate change, terrorism, and so on — you could not do it if you concentrated just within the boundaries of the U.S. In my role it is almost an imperative; if you want your research to have a global impact, you’d better work closely with a global set of partners.”

Pursuing such collaborations, he concedes, is challenging. “In addition to cultural political differences, these days there is a growing national sentiment which puts additional stress on international research,” he comments. “Faculty are concerned, federal funding agencies have increasing sensitivity regarding research security — especially with IP involved. For me, as a researcher and in my duties, there is a very delicate balance I have to maintain. But moving forward at Virginia Tech our marching orders are to do whatever we can to facilitate international partnerships.”

And the benefits of success, he continues, are many. “When you have international partners you have additional intellectual scientific expertise, and you diversify the expertise in your team,” says Sui. “Then, there’s data sharing — if you do not have an international partner, you have a limited data set. And there is research infrastructure; some international partners have better facilities than others. All of this really improves the depth of your projects.”

Sui has a natural partner in Guru Ghosh, vice president for outreach and international affairs, who has been with the university for about 10 years and has seen significant growth on the international front, including in research and corporate partnership. His role includes spearheading implementation of the university’s International Strategic Plan.

“Our former president wanted us to operate in foreign countries, but you had to have legal entities there in order to garner investments from governments,” he notes. “One of the first was in Switzerland. We set up study abroad programs. Second, a large emphasis was placed in India; [the president] really challenged us to focus on research and commercialization, and to work with India. Many Indian universities have come to visit Virginia Tech and asked us to build similar research centers on their campuses.”

One such center focuses on frontier materials, where research involves a system to convert coal into graphite — a key material for the 21st century, according to Ghosh. One of the companies that Virginia Tech’s corporate legal entity in India is partnering with is Mahindra & Mahindra Limited, a multinational automotive manufacturing company. The partnership is active in Chennai, which Ghosh refers to as “the Detroit of India” for its focus on the auto industry.

“We started working with Mahindra Tractor and Mahindra Automobiles, setting up partnerships to help train their employees in cybersecurity and data analytics, and other autonomous systems.”

Chennai, he continues, offers many other potential industry partners. “Every major automobile manufacturer has a research or production center in Chennai, including Lamby, Daimler, Ford, GM, 315 South Korean companies and 500 Japanese companies — not just automobiles, but components manufacturing companies,” he says. “They are all potential partners.”

In early 2022, he reports, a Virginia Tech research presence will be established on the campus of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology)-Madras. “We’ll set up a research office there,” he says. “Lots of industry works with their faculty, and we look to partner with them as well.”

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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