UI institute represents 'next step' for research

UI institute represents 'next step' for research

CHAMPAIGN — Say you invented a new coating for airplanes — a de-icer, for example.

To take the next step and put it on a plane, you would have to integrate it into the design of the plane itself, consider factors like weight, durability, quality control, environmental impacts, how it will fit into the fabrication process, how it fits in your company's economic model and more.

Taking this "systems approach" is something they do at the Illinois Applied Research Institute.

"There are many leading materials scientists who make things (on the University of Illinois campus) and who measure unique properties of that. What we'd like to do is integrate those things into engineered systems (like planes) and scale them up," said Jeff Binder, the institute's director.

Traditional research on college campuses tends to be basic or fundamental science research; applied research is "the next step," said William Dick, director of operations at the Illinois ARI. "How do you take it and place it in a system, how do you scale that up," he said.

The Illinois Applied Research Institute formally launched in late 2012 but has really taken off in the last year. Last summer employees moved into 5,000 square feet of space in the Sony building in the UI Research Park and director Jeff Binder was hired last fall from Oak Ridge National Laboratory where he was associate laboratory director for nuclear science and engineering. They will soon add another 7,000 square feet of office space in the Info Tech, or Z3 Building, in the park. In the near future Binder said they want to add laboratory space where scientists can build prototypes and do some light manufacturing.

"We see that as a first step to a more significant applied research capability here in the research park. We want an anchor facility that says the University of Illinois Applied Research Institute," he said.

Those plans are not too far off.

"We're aggressive. It's a challenge. We have to think creatively about financial models and how we do that but I think three years should be the target" for the "anchor building," Binder said.

The institute now has over 30 employees (including physicists and mechanical engineers) and by the end of this year Dick expects that number to increase to 40 to 45 and in four to five years the institute could employ 100 to 200 people. Its annual budget is about $3 million and half of that financial support comes from the university. Shortly after wrapping up their fifth year in operation, the goal is to have 80 percent to 90 percent of the funding from outside sources, such as contracts with Fortune 500 companies or federal grants from agencies such as the Department of Defense.

The industries they're going after include agriculture, biotechnology, infrastructure (roads, etc.), energy and more. They're talking with companies like Grainger, Ford, Boeing and Honda. Right now the institute has programs in several different areas, such as defense (cyberapplications and how to use that information in the field) and materials research.

"When you look at big problems, the challenges are increasingly complex. They increasingly demand multidisciplinary approaches," Binder said. "When you think about moving science or technology to solutions for big problems ... some of that has been done by the private sector, or in some cases, national laboratories or federal government laboratories. But when you look at the landscape now, the private sector has increasing demands on profit margins. You see this tightening of research budgets in the private sector; you also see a tightening of research budgets," he said.

The vision for the upstart institute is to bridge science right out of the university to translational research, to do it rapidly and with multidisciplinary and flexible teams that can cost-effectively come together and solve problems.

The UI's involvement in this kind of research goes back to 1903 and the creation of what was called the Engineering Experiment Station, where researchers worked with industry to solve problems of the state and country. The station dissolved about 25 years ago and Binder and Dick see the ARI as having some of the same "flavors" of the earlier organization, with its emphasis on tackling challenges with industry. Today those challenges could range from looking for better use of data in agricultural science to applying genomic data to "individualized medicine" or exploring the use of coatings with "self-healing properties" for certain manufacturers.

"I'm really excited about what we're doing here and the opportunities it presents for the university to have this kind of impact on the economy of the state and the region," he said.