UI research gets major boost with Grainger gift

CHAMPAIGN — Tiny, biocompatible electronics that can dissolve in water. Home appliances that can talk to the power grid. "Bio-bots" that hunt for tumors inside a body.

Breakthrough research in bioengineering and big data at the University of Illinois got a huge boost Monday with the announcement of a $100 million donation from the Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest.

The Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative in the College of Engineering will support the hiring of additional faculty, provide more scholarships for engineering students and help fund the renovation of a laboratory on campus slated to be home to the college's growing bioengineering department.

The gift, in honor of 1919 electrical engineering graduate W.W. Grainger, is the largest gift ever to the college and the largest given to any public university so far this school year, according to the UI. It's also one of the biggest ever to the campus. The Grainger gift ties the amount pledged by another UI alumnus, Thomas Siebel, and his wife, Stacey, in 2007 for science and engineering programs.

"The two breakthrough areas we want to invest in first are bioengineering and big data," two areas that will have a huge impact on society, said Michael Bragg, interim dean of the College of Engineering.

The gift will fund at least 35 new chairs and professorships across the college; 26 of those will be in the areas of bioengineering and big data, representing $40 million.

UI researchers in those areas have been exploring, for example, how medical imaging techniques and nanoscale biotechnologies can diagnose or treat diseases, or how massive amounts of data can be analyzed to improve our understanding of everything from genomics to public policies.

"For a young department that is growing quickly — adding faculty, students, growing different courses — this ... is going to be spectacular," said Michael Insana, head of the 9-year-old Department of Bioengineering, where the average ACT score of incoming students is 34 and the department accepts about 60 of 700 applicants each year.

The department will be able to recruit even more professors to its developing program and offer additional scholarships, he said.

The Grainger gift will also help pay for a $40 million renovation to Everitt Laboratory, which at 619 S. Wright St., C, currently houses the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. ECE is expected to move next year into a new building under construction on Wright Street just south of the Beckman Institute. Bioengineering is currently housed in several different buildings but will locate in Everitt Lab when the move and renovation are completed. A timeline has not been established yet, Insana said.

In the coming months, the College of Engineering will launch an ambitious $100 million campaign to raise money for scholarships. And a portion of Grainger's $100 million donation will be earmarked for that initiative.

"No matter how talented the professors, without matching them with the curiosity of young minds ... not very much can happen," said Andreas Cangellaris, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"We are a land-grant institution and we must position ourselves to provide for the best minds that want to come to study engineering at Illinois. (The Grainger donation) is a big step forward to making us deliver on that dream," Cangellaris said.

The soon-to-be-launched scholarship campaign comes at a time when the college's tuition (base tuition plus $4,920 differential) has hit $16,754 per year for in-state students starting this fall. Add to that room and board and student fees, and an incoming engineering student's bill will be just shy of $30,000 a year at $29,649 year.

"Because of the reduction of state funding and the increases of tuition, it's becoming expensive to attend the University of Illinois and the College of Engineering. We already have scholarship funds, but not nearly enough," Bragg said.

The Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Department of Computer Science also stand to benefit from the $100 million donation.

"This is a spectacularly generous gift from the Grainger Foundation, and we are especially excited one of the prime focuses is big data," said Rob Rutenbar, head of the Department of Computer Science.

Big data is "about living in this giant sea of data" and mining all that data to address the world's challenges related to public transportation, agriculture, genomics, energy and many more.

"The scope of this gift significantly boost our efforts in big data," he said. "We'll be able to go after new hires, and it will be a big boost to the college's ability to offer scholarships to the best and brightest," Rutenbar said.

Unlike gifts that are tied to estates or have other provisions, this is a financial donation the college expects to receive within a few years.

The $100 million gift is not the first time the Grainger Foundation has given a significant amount of money to the college. William W. Grainger founded W.W. Grainger Inc., an industrial supply company, in 1927. The Grainger Foundation is a long-term benefactor of the College of Engineering. The Grainger Engineering Library on campus opened in 1994 with the help of a $18.7 million gift from Grainger. And the foundation over the years endowed professorships and scholarships.

"This generous donation from The Grainger Foundation will strengthen the College of Engineering's ability to maintain its legacy of groundbreaking accomplishments and remarkable new discoveries that change the world and enrich the lives of people everywhere. We are certain that this very generous gift to the College of Engineering at Illinois will have broad impact across all of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and beyond," said UI Provost Ilesanmi Adesida who was dean of the College of Engineering until this past summer.

Added Chancellor Wise: "This transformative gift will ensure a chain reaction of possibilities that will fortify the campus as a pre-eminent, globally recognized institution."

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Reykjavik wrote on January 29, 2013 at 5:01 pm

The gift shows how generous folks from the past help those that follow.  The gift is also very good for the C-U community since the income will often be spent locally.