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New Member Spotlight: University of Alabama in Huntsville

Robert Lindquist

Kannan Grant

UIDP welcomes the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) as a new member organization. Although best known for its research partnerships with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Army, the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other important Department of Defense partners, UAH is the anchor tenant of Cummings Research Park, the second-largest corporate research and technology park in the U.S., which includes more than 300 high-tech companies. UIDP spoke with Robert Lindquist, vice president of research and economic development and professor of electrical and computer engineering at UAH, and Kannan Grant, director of UAH’s Office of Technology Commercialization.

UIDP: What is UAH hoping to gain from its membership with UIDP in the coming year? 

Grant: We got our start as a university to address the research and development needs related to Redstone Arsenal (established in 1941 to support the war effort), and we grew up really fast. In 1961, the demand for a highly-trained workforce among the city’s aerospace and defense industries continued to exceed capacity. Seeking a more permanent solution, a committee headed by renowned rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun traveled to the state capital that summer to request a $3 million bond for the establishment of a research institute. In a presentation to the Alabama Legislature, he’s quoted as saying, “It’s the university climate that brings the business. It’s not water, or real estate, or labor, or cheap taxes that bring industry to a state or city. It’s brainpower.”

UAH was founded initially as a research institute to support NASA and the Army Missile Command and the companies that support those efforts; our founding mission was to support companies that were being located in Huntsville.  UAH is the anchor tenant in the second largest research park in the U.S. and fourth largest in the world. We are known for aerospace engineering, but we’re also very active in computer and mathematical sciences, economics, and atmospheric science.

We’ve continued to be an integral part of the region’s economic ecosystem, working with Redstone Arsenal and companies within the defense and aerospace cluster, as well as biotech companies. More than 25% of our research funding comes from industry. We want to look at what others are doing and we’re hoping we can learn and share what we are doing.

Lindquist: Redstone Arsenal is the driving force in this community and leads to hundreds of technology firms being located across the street from us. We have excellent relationships with them, but we’re often treated as another industry partner rather than an educational institution. The traditional university-industry relationship is probably different here. We’re looking at how to educate industry about the benefits of the university and what we can offer, in addition to learning best practices for working with industry.

UIDP: What are the current challenges that UAH is facing in the development of university-industry partnerships? 

Lindquist: It’s not unusual to see other institutions put buildings up across the street from the UAH campus; our location adjacent to Redstone Arsenal is both a challenge and a benefit. The relationships we have with industry are very good. Our partnership effort is to have a true collaboration instead of a philanthropic-type of approach to industry.

UAH is fifth in the nation for federal expenditures in aerospace R&D, but we’re not a political force in the state, and by not being a political force, you have to do everything on the lean. There isn’t a lot of funding to market yourself, to get your story out. We have to figure out a different way to reach industry with our strengths.

UIDP: Please share any innovative ways that UAH is making an impact on U-I interactions.  

Grant: Over the last few years, we have really taken a forward-looking stance in working with industry. One of the biggest challenges in collaboration was how to handle intellectual property; it’s a huge issue. We’ve taken the stance that when companies fund research at UAH, using their internal research and development dollars, they would own all IP that is generated from such activity. That’s what we’ve done to make it an easy decision to work with UAH for everyone. We also want to foster local companies working with us, and not just in the aerospace and defense sectors. It’s great to work with companies for workforce development as well as sponsored research because the companies provide the context for students and research. I think they’re gaining more because it’s a true collaboration.

UIDP: Please share an example of a particularly successful U-I project or partnership.

Lindquist: Aerojet Rocketdyne is a company that leases space on campus and has been co-located at UAH since 2009. Aerojet Rocketdyne has also invested in a professorship, the Aerojet Rocketdyne Chair in Space Science. We also have NOAA and NASA co-located relationships; being co-located with researchers on the campus leads to a warmer, more organic relationship. The proximity is key. We welcome any company that wants to have that type of relationship. We have similar successful relationships with Boeing in the Huntsville Design Center.