The University of Illinois plans a $100 million center to develop smart technologies in partnership with a division of Foxconn and the long-planned Discovery Partners Institute.
The Center for Networked Intelligent Components & Environments will be based on the Urbana-Champaign campus as part of the Grainger College of Engineering.
It’s a major partnership for the U of I, which has one of the nation’s top-ranked engineering schools, and it could be the breakout project that allows DPI to go from an idea to something more real.
The new center will work on smart technologies related to the internet of things, sensors and software used in manufacturing plants, medical environments, autonomous vehicles and smart homes.
The university says $50 million for the new center will come from Foxconn Interconnect Technology, part of the global manufacturing giant that makes electrical and optical components and is run by U of I alum Sidney Lu, a mechanical engineering graduate.
DPI will foot the other $50 million, with half the money coming from the university and half from state funds that were appropriated for the technology research institute but have not been released. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office has not yet confirmed the deal.
DPI was an idea hatched by former Gov. Bruce Rauner and championed by U of I President Tim Killeen. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also was a strong supporter. But DPI has taken various twists and turns since then, as a new governor and mayor took office.
As originally envisioned, DPI would be a research facility in downtown Chicago on the planned megadevelopment called the 78. The idea was to better connect the state’s top engineering school and Chicago economy, by giving U of I researchers and students from downstate a place in the city to study and work with companies here.
Rauner promised $500 million to DPI when he was running for re-election. But he was defeated by Pritzker, a former venture capitalist who has been a key supporter of the Chicago tech economy. Pritzker liked the idea of DPI but told Killeen that the facility would have to demonstrate some traction before the cash-strapped state would release the funds.
DPI has continued to morph, becoming part of a broader statewide collection of technology research institutions called the Illinois Innovation Network. Based on today’s announcement, it appears DPI isn’t just a Chicago entity but will have a home in Urbana, as well.
FOXCONN BETS ON BIG 10
Regardless of the name, the new Center for Networked Intelligent Components & Environments, dubbed C-NICE, is the latest example of U of I leveraging the success of its alumni to invest in talent and facilities needed to keep its engineering school, ranked No. 6 in the U.S., at the head of the pack.
Lu, a 1981 graduate, has given $21.5 million to build a five-story addition to the university’s mechanical engineering building in Urbana. He is CEO of Foxconn’s business that makes everything from connectors and cables to sensors. “It’s with great excitement we announce the company that I am so proud of and the university that touched my life coming together to create the center,” Lu said in a statement.
Foxconn Interconnect Technology will fund the $50 million over 10 years. The unit is separate from Foxconn Technology Group, the electronics-assembly business that is building a factory near Kenosha, Wis., and is funding $100 million in engineering research at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Foxconn Interconnect already has a presence in the U of I Research Park, alongside dozens of other companies. Under the new partnership, teams of researchers from Foxconn Interconnect and the University of Illinois will work together on a wide range of projects. The first of wave includes development of new measurement techniques for nanoscale components, new methods for capturing and culling manufacturing data, robot-human interaction and new data-processing techniques related to sensors.
The internet of things concept—or the idea of connecting equipment to computers in factories or on the roads—has caught fire. But it’s a long way from reality. Much of the heavy lifting will be done at research universities around the country. Already, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which just hired a new dean of engineering from U of I, has become a top spot for autonomous-driving R&D.
BIG ALUMNI GIFTS
Foxconn’s commitment to U of I is the latest example of major gifts connected to alums in the tech industry. The engineering school recently changed its name to Grainger College of Engineering after raising $300 million from the foundation of William Grainger, an alum and founder of an industrial supply company based in Lake Forest.
Alum Tom Siebel, founder of Silicon Valley software company Siebel Systems, donated $25 million for a new design center in Champaign. He previously donated $32 million for a new computer science facility in Urbana that opened in 2004.
The amount Lu has donated to build an addition to the university’s mechanical engineering building in Urbana has been updated.