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A weeklong trip to India by a University of Illinois delegation this month resulted in commitments for new academic and research partnerships with top Indian universities — and more international partners for the Discovery Partners Institute.

President Tim Killeen and other UI officials signed agreements with seven of India's top universities and research agencies to collaborate with the three campuses on student- and faculty-exchange programs, teaching and curricula, and research in health care, engineering and sustainability.

Some of the agreements will also connect leading faculty in India with the UI-led DPI in Chicago, an anchor for a new statewide network designed to foster innovation in computer science, health care and food and agriculture.

Killeen said the visit to India on Dec. 1-8 was part of an ongoing effort to enhance international ties for the UI, through DPI and the campuses.

It follows similar trips by Killeen to Singapore — where the Urbana campus jointly operates a research center — as well as Taiwan, Mexico and Israel. Tel Aviv University just signed a formal partnership agreement with DPI last week, and another partner will be announced in about a month, Killeen said.

India was "next on the list," Killeen said.

More than 3,000 students from India attend the UI's three campuses, including almost 1,500 at Urbana, the second-highest international cohort after China, Killeen said.

Many distinguished UI faculty were born in India, and other UI professors have longstanding partnerships with faculty there, he said.

This trip was designed to build on those connections and create "strategic linkages," Killeen said.

So far, the collaborations have been mostly "faculty to faculty partnerships," said Pradeep Khanna, interim associate vice president for corporate and international engagement.

"This is the first time we have signed formal agreements with the leading universities. We are trying to elevate the level of our relationship with Indian institutions," Khanna said.

During the trip, the UI signed agreements to further collaborations with the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the country's top-ranked public university; the Birla Institute of Technology & Science in Pilani, the top private university; and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, a national leader in engineering.

Other agreements were signed with Gokula Education Foundation, a charitable trust in Bangalore that operates a medical school and university; Kerala Startup Mission, a government agency that promotes business incubator and entrepreneurship programs; the Information and Communication Technology Academy of Kerala, a nonprofit agency; and the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management in Kerala.

The trip also included a meeting at Haryana Agricultural University, which has an existing partnership with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; as well as visits to the Energy and Resources Institute, India's top environmental research group; the government's Department of Science & Technology; and its Ministry for Electronics and Information Technology.

The group also met with startups, venture capital groups and leading corporations, including Axilor Ventures, the country's largest startup fund, and the tech giant Infosys, co-founded by a UI alumnus. The company is working extensively in artificial intelligence, Killeen said. Infosys is also interested in becoming a DPI corporate partner, he said.

"DPI was well-known to our hosts there," Killeen said.

Three startup firms expressed strong interest in working with DPI to come to Chicago, Killeen and Khanna said. India has a strong network of incubators, and many startups are eager to explore U.S. markets, he said. The partnership could also help Illinois startups that want to tap into India's "innovation ecosystem," he said.

"We all see this as providing opportunities for Urbana faculty, for Urbana students, for the Research Park and startups flowing out of our system," Killeen said.

The agreements signed this month include a letter of intent from the Gokula Educational Foundation to become DPI's second international partner. Under its terms, Gokula will establish a research and instructional facility within DPI. Faculty from Illinois will work with Gokula faculty to develop intensive entrepreneurship programs through DPI, with courses available to students from both institutions and other partner universities.

Gokula will also be invited to participate in the design of a new incubator facility for startups. Research partnerships could include joint faculty appointments between Gokula and Illinois as well as sabbaticals at DPI, joint research projects and new courses to meet the changing needs of industry, the letter of intent says.

"All the universities that we met with also had a strong interest in DPI," Khanna said.

The Urbana campus already has more than two dozen partnerships with Indian universities, institutes and companies. The collaborations go back decades, to the years following India's independence in 1947 when UI officials helped the country establish agricultural and technology institutes in higher education.

The campus opened an office in New Delhi in 2013 to facilitate those connections, but it was put on hold in 2016 during the state budget crisis. Khanna said the UI can work through its ties with universities, government agencies and alumni groups for the next year or two and possibly open an office a year or two down the road.

The trip also resulted in a new UI alumni chapter in Bangalore, following one already established in Delhi.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).