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Three-way data science partnership with insurer gets new funding, new programs

A detailed article on the partnership between Marquette, UW-Milwaukee, and Northwestern Mutual appears in the October issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

After five years of partnership in developing and then growing the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute (NMDSI), Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) have renewed their deal with Northwestern Mutual. Together they’ll contribute another $35 million in funding, on top of the $40 million pledged in the initial agreement. The insurance company and its two university partners plan to delve deeper into joint research, compete for large federal grants, begin the process of further embedding data science across curricula at both campuses, and broaden its reach to include other academic, corporate, and nonprofit partners.

This second round of funding represents the consensus that while the first five years were a success — the NMDSI has already completed three sponsored research projects, awarded more than $17 million in grants and hosted multiple cross-institute research seminars — much work remains to be done.

Beginning this month, the NMDSI will roll out four programs, each fleshed out and ideated during the first five years of the partnership. Requests for proposals will be sent out for faculty-driven research; students and faculty will be brought together for innovative data science work; new data-infused courses will be developed at Marquette and UWM; and external, cross-disciplinary talent will be identified that can bring cutting-edge data science tools and techniques into classrooms. All of this while cross-institute researchers continue to work on projects directly sponsored by Northwestern Mutual.

The NMDSI will fund these endeavors annually for the next five years, creating a pipeline of research, ideas, and talent that the leadership at NMDSI hopes will filter down throughout both campuses, with data science finding its way into departments that aren’t typically associated with the field — law, the humanities, the social sciences and even theology. In the process, the NMDSI looks to become a national model of university-industry collaboration.

The governance of the partnership is comprehensive, with representatives from all three partners at the executive steering level all the way down to staff. Jonathan Stark, the inaugural executive director of the NMDSI, is an employee of Northwestern Mutual, while co-director Dr. Purush Papatla represents UWM, and co-director Scott Rex represents Marquette. In terms of funding, the partner contributions are roughly equal.

Stark, brought on in May 2022, says he walked into an organization that was primed for strategic growth. Citing long-standing collaboration and established lines of communication among the partners, the substantial funding commitments, and the governance structure, Stark says it will be easy to continue advancing the institute’s mission. And as executive director, part of his job is to envision what the institute will become and how it will function over the long haul.

“As we build this ecosystem as a center of excellence in the core areas, one critical element is the sustainability model,” Stark says. “What happens after these five years? How are we going to build a revenue structure or bring in funding, in particular the research funding, to keep existing programs up and running while also keeping the lights on?”

But in the meantime, NMDSI has a big package of initiatives it is unveiling starting this month.

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