You Use It Here (on Our Campus) First

Another new year is around the corner, and in American higher education we might wonder what’s new in university-industry collaboration.

Traditionally, when a company works with a university, it’s primarily either to collaborate on research and innovation or to recruit talents and up-skill employees. Occasionally, a company decides to build an office or a factory on the land owned by a university, and the town-gown neighborhood benefits from such economic development because jobs and knowledge are created together.

Now there’s another win-win to this relationship: Piloting the deployment of new products and solutions, especially as universities build out new campuses that offer diverse use cases and can choose to be more efficient and less bureaucratic than most municipalities.

The high-stakes struggle to advance technological solution with ever-increasing complexity, as well as seize the mantle of technology leadership for global competitiveness, has sharpened to the point where industry and academia need to further broaden their complementary, synergistic endeavors.

The “aha moment” arrives when we remember that university campuses are also (small) cities. We can turn the whole campus into a testbed with actual deployment, not just experiments inside labs, to serve those living and working there. Rather than procuring from the lowest cost vendors, we can invite, through a competitive process and safety checks, the cutting-edge technologies from laboratories to life deployment.

Some examples of such Lab to Life (L2L) opportunities can be found in services that a campus must provide and might as well turn the procurement office into an innovation partnership office:

  • 5G/WiFi6/6G: Not only in public mobile network but also in private network deployment, with use cases ranging from connected classrooms to campus warehouses.
  • Augmented and virtual reality: It can enrich student lives in both learning in dorms and participation in athletic events.
  • Autonomy in 2D/3D mobility: Campuses require transportation of people and products, and autonomous, electrified buses, or drone-delivered goods can make campus operation more efficient.

At Purdue University, the ongoing construction of the Discovery Park District, as envisioned by President Mitch Daniels, is a live-work-learn-play campus and our foray into this L2L model. Over the past year, we have started rolling out the following features:

  • Scale of green field construction: All 400 acres of mixed-use development of Discovery Park District will be a combination of a connected community and testing grounds for private-sector partners. There will be undergraduate dorms, graduate student housing, single family houses, advanced manufacturing facilities, offices, retail shops, restaurants, green space, trails, and an airport that supports modern air mobility. The intent is that the real estate development will provide best-in-class products and services to about 10,000 people who will live, work, learn, and regularly visit there, enabling companies to innovate connectivity solutions by deploying them first at Purdue.
  • Industry leadership: Due to its proximity to Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus, L2L at the Discovery Park District benefits from professors conducting research and students getting ready for employment in precisely the areas where the innovations will be deployed. To connect the dots together, industry partners form various verticals of a Technology Leaders Advisory Board. For example, in the connectivity vertical, leaders from AT&T, Celona, Cisco, Dell, Ericsson, Intel
    , SBA and Tilson brainstorm with the university regularly. The new campus also houses the “Convergence Center for Innovation and Collaboration” as a front door for companies seeking to collaborate with Purdue.  
  • Open edge infrastructure: 5G/6G will form the foundation for this connected community, along with a neutral-host connectivity infrastructure that includes 15 miles of high-capacity fiber, a common edge data center, shared spectrum, and private networks using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum. This infrastructure will be a common “utility” for the district’s residents, tenants, and vendors who will enjoy fast approvals and deployment capabilities.
  • Governance model: To protect the safety and privacy of the district’s residents and visitors, this community is governed through a mechanism that the Purdue Research Foundation manages in close collaboration with the City of West Lafayette in Indiana.

As technology gets more complex and develops at a faster pace, platforms like this will narrow the gap between invention and commercialization, sanding down the speed bumps that often slow collaboration among academic researchers, students, entrepreneurs, corporations and local communities.  

We have often complained about the “valley of death” in the innovation lifecycle. Now a university can turn its own campus into a bridge from Lab to Life.

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