State Farm sees continual growth at UI Research Park
CHAMPAIGN – When State Farm opened its research and development center in the University of Illinois Research Park, the Bloomington-based insurance giant hoped the center could help the company recruit more students from the UI's actuarial science program.
"The goal was a small office. If in three years we hired three people into full-time positions, it would be a success," said John Quarton, the center's oversight manager.
Over the next five years, the center brought in close to 300 students as interns, and State Farm ended up hiring 36 of them full time, he said.
Projects tackled by interns at the center give State Farm new expertise and "a young-adult perspective," Quarton said. Plus, students, who typically work there 10 to 15 hours a week, get valuable work experience.
"They appreciate the fact they're doing real-world work," he said.
On Tuesday evening, the research center will celebrate its fifth anniversary with an open house for invited guests, including former interns, UI officials and visitors from State Farm.
About 150 people are expected, with brief remarks slated from UI interim President Stanley Ikenberry and interim Chancellor Bob Easter, among others.
When the center opened in 2005, it had three full-time employees and eight student interns, Quarton said.
Today the center has 21 full-time employees, and it will have close to 90 interns during the spring semester, he said. The center absorbed some employees when Motorola closed its local operations and Yahoo scaled back.
Plus, as many as 90 people are employed part time at State Farm's Center for Consumer Feedback, also housed in the research park.
That center is a research-oriented outbound call center, where employees – 70 percent of them students, 30 percent of them community residents – ask customers about their claims experience and their impressions of the insurance business.
The research and development center occupies most of the first floor of the building at 2001 S. First St., C, having recently added 7,000 square feet there.
The center is divided among three departments:
– The systems department, which looks at emerging software and hardware to determine what might enhance State Farm's products and services.
– The strategic resources department, the work of which includes researching state markets from insurance and financial services perspectives.
– The actuarial department, which focuses on pricing products and services based on risks associated with them.
One of the projects the center influenced was the development of Pocket Agent, a mobile phone application that allows State Farm customers to begin the process of submitting a claim. The application also helps mobile phone users contact their agent and identify service and repair facilities.
"We've benefited from the young-adult perspective," Quarton said. "Until a year or so ago, we did not have a way to interact with customers through a mobile device."
Students at the center worked on prototypes for mobile applications and presented their findings in Bloomington during the summer of 2008. The presentation was attended by a State Farm employee (and former intern) who was inspired to come up with a prototype application for submitting a claim. That resulted in Pocket Agent.
Another mobile application that springs from the center's work is scheduled to be introduced later this year, but State Farm isn't releasing information about it yet.
John Drzemala, the center's manager for strategic resources, said a variety of other topics are being explored at the center.
For example, "we've done some project work looking at alternative energy sources to power (State Farm) facilities," he said.
The center is also looking into vehicle collision-avoidance technology to determine how that could affect State Farm in the future, he added.
Researchers are also exploring how large companies manage talent, and how those methods compare with State Farm's. The center is also doing research on young-adult consumers and on improving internal communications.
Drzemala said the center offers internships not only to business and finance majors, but also to students from other disciplines, such as electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.
A brochure for the center said other skills it's seeking include: communications, social sciences, statistics and quantitative analysis, consumer economics and finance, computer science and computer engineering, and data and text mining.
Quarton is effusive about the talent State Farm has pulled from campus.
"The UI has not just the quality of students we're looking for, but also the quantity," he said.
Looking to the future, Quarton said the center is "working to become known ... as a premier internship experience" and hopes to draw students from other campuses – particularly in the summer, when some UI students return home or take other internships.
He also hopes to draw UI faculty members into research projects of joint interest to State Farm and the UI.
When the center started, State Farm was "not sure of its viability or long-term sustainability," Quarton said.
"Now we know it is viable and something that can be sustained into the future."
State Farm Research & Development Center
Work done: Research on risk and pricing of insurance products, state markets and information technology, among other things.
Employment: 21 full-time employees, 90 student interns, plus as many as 90 part-time employees at the Center for Consumer Feedback.
Location: 2001 S. First St., C, in the University of Illinois Research Park.
Oversight manager: John Quarton.
Web site: www.sfresearchcenter.com.