Facilities

U Illinois Urbana-Champaign ‘Cultivates’ Research With AgTech Industry

A new lab seeks to innovate grower solutions in North America using UIUC’s student talent.

To an outsider, Illinois’ corn fields may seem ordinary, but to students, faculty, researchers and companies working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), agriculture is where opportunity lies. UIUC in partnership with agriculture company Syngenta yesterday opened the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab, a research facility that aims to further advance agricultural research on and off campus. The center was the last component of UIUC’s 2017 Agricultural Technology Innovation Summit (AgTech 2017), which took place Feb. 23 at Research Park.

“We see ourselves as being really at a good spot for [AgTech] because of the strong engineering and computing reputations in Illinois, as well as our long legacy in agriculture,” said Laura Frerichs, director of Research Park and director of economic development for UIUC, in an interview.

More than 100 companies — from startup to Fortune 500 — can be found working in UIUC’s Research Park, a technology hub for corporate research and development operations. Forbes.com named Research Park as one of the top 12 business incubators changing the world. In addition, it has the fastest supercomputer on a university campus, Blue Waters, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.

Since Illinois — one of the biggest producers of corn and soybean — is where a lot of agronomy testing takes place, Frerichs said that UIUC has positioned itself as a leader in AgTech research. The newly opened Digital Innovation Lab offers access to tools, technologies, partnerships and resources that enable cutting-edge research.

“Our peers that are leading in supercomputing or computer science — MIT, Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley and us as the top five in engineering — don’t have agriculture schools that are right next to them,” she said. “Having people who not only understand farms and crops and how to grow them, but also have the technological advances to modernize and create better efficiencies is why so many have become engaged with us.”

Growing Student Talent for AgTech and Other Industries

According to Frerichs, one thing they do differently from other universities with research parks is employ mostly students. UIUC’s Research Park currently employs about 600 students who get the chance work alongside industry professionals and receive real-world experience.

“These offices are a way that the company can fairly inexpensively hire a workforce that can be essentially a little skunkworks operation for them that tries out new products, prototypes and allows them to hopefully be faster and not wait for full-time resources to become available,” she said. “There are a lot of full-time employees here as well, and support from the technology community, which is primarily software developers and data scientists.”

With the addition of the newly opened Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab, UIUC seeks to foster “outside the box” thinking, using digital data innovation and strategy “to develop capabilities in breeding engineering, digital agriculture, information, technology, application development and big data,” according to a UIUC prepared statement.

Furthermore, the center capitalizes on UIUC’s internationally recognized expertise in high performance computing (HPC), data sciences and agriculture science. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has an existing licensing arrangement with UIUC to use large-scale supercomputing models to look at how CO2 exposure to plants will increase crop yields and food productivity. Agriculture companies like Syngenta serve as commercial partners that can see how the research can reach the marketplace.

“We’ve had many advances in computing breakthroughs from this university and I think that’s something to really to build upon,” said Frerichs. “We’re a land grant institution, we have one of the biggest agriculture colleges in the world and we’re surrounded by farm country. You can lookout the windows of any of the offices here and you’re still looking at farmland that is being actively tilled and farmed and that’s important for the companies that are making advances in AgTech. [Researchers and companies] need to be in touch with the growers who are their customers and they need to be able to show that they understand agronomy. You can create lots of great software or new centers, but if you don’t actually understand impact farm ROI then you’re missing the opportunity of influencing that marketplace.”

The Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab will employ a full-time director, professional staff and employ students who will work on developing projects. Students are currently being hired to work at the lab, which expects to be fully operational by this summer.

To learn more, visit UIUC’s Research Park site.

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