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New Member Spotlight: Underwriters Laboratories

Chris Cramer

Chris Cramer

UIDP welcomes Underwriters Laboratories as a new member organization. We spoke with Chris Cramer, senior vice president and chief research officer, about Underwriters Laboratories’ goals for membership in UIDP. UL Research partners with a wide variety of stakeholders to ensure its work is both relevant and advances its public safety mission.

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

Cramer: Underwriters Laboratories is at the beginning of a significant period of growth in investment in basic research, from spending $30 million a year on research to spending somewhere north of $250 million a year. It makes us a significant independent research entity in the United States. To maximize that impact, we want to have robust relationships with research organizations.

Connecting with UIDP makes sense because it’s the community that includes the research universities, other research entities, and industry, an important part of the overall mix. Having ownership of a for-profit industry ourselves, we know how important it is to understand where industry is going, with respect to what the research needs are.

That expansion has been driven by a desire on the part of our board to unlock the potential created by the financial success of that for-profit business, UL, Inc., our testing, advisory, and certification business (a separate entity from Underwriters Laboratories). Over a decade ago the decision was made to create that subordinate business entity and run it like a business to make it more nimble, responsive, and more profitable. Over time, a fair amount of capital was generated that has now been unlocked. That is how we drive our internal investments and research. The philosophy, though, is that we’re the same organization as we were when we were founded 128 years ago, with our focus being the public good.

Our goal is to address safety science; we’re really talking about looking at threats to either individual or societal welfare and wellbeing. That can range from something terrifically obvious—like your electric scooters should not burst into flames at any given moment—to more subtle issues, which include certain artificial intelligence constructs that have been found not to be effective with marginalized populations because they were not well represented in the original data from which the constructs were created. That’s an equity issue, if you like, but it’s a safety issue, too. We’re pretty broadminded about what we’re interested in tackling.

Because we have the capability, we’re interested in moving into some new areas as well and sensing out what those should be. That’s another reason to engage with UIDP: to hear what’s coming on the horizon for some of the other partners with whom we might work.

UIDP: What are the current challenges that UL faces in the development of cross-sector partnerships?  

Cramer: Like any organization envisioning five-fold growth over five years, we know it’s a huge undertaking. Our biggest challenges are going to be infrastructural. Historically, we have leveraged partnerships, but it’s been at a relatively small scale and it’s been a bit relationship-driven. We’re probably going to move into more of an RFP process for some research where we might want to work with others. And it’s quite possible that industry might be interested in our capabilities to assist them in looking at issues that are associated with safety of new products and new technologies.

I was a vice president for research before coming to Underwriters Laboratories, so I understand how universities work with industry. We’re just as dedicated to openness, and our technology transfer would probably follow similar pathways as is the case for a university. None of that infrastructure is in place, so we’re building out a library function, a grants management function, and other infrastructure.

UIDP: What is an example of an innovative way that Underwriters Laboratories is making an impact on U-I interactions?

Cramer: One thing that is exciting is that we are able to work with universities as a funding partner if there’s an opportunity from the federal government that requires matching funds and the project aligns with our priorities. We want to scope what is coming over the horizon to gauge where we should invest in our internal capacity, and if it’s an area that’s new for us, an effective approach is to fund a partner.

We effectively did exactly that with Northwestern University to look at machine learning and safety issues associated with machine learning. The Center for Advancing Safety of Machine Intelligence (CASMI) recently launched and they’re putting projects into practice right away. We’re building our internal capacity and will be taking on more of our own research, but I anticipate that this kind of partnering model will be useful for several research areas over the next several years.

UIDP: Please share about some of your successful university-industry projects or partnerships.

Cramer: Part of our existing research footprint includes what’s often called human exposure. It’s research in environmental toxicology, mostly looking at air quality. We have relationships with Duke University and we’re doing some work in China on air pollution as it affects developmental growth in children. Georgia State University has been a partner in this area, as well, specifically looking at vaping, which is a different air quality issue.

Case Western Reserve has been a partner on various fronts. In addition to being a research organization, we’re also interested in many of the kinds of things corporations do from the standpoint of philanthropy. I take very seriously STEM education and addressing the need for a workforce that will serve our research and development needs in the long run. At Case Western, we’ve invested in internships for undergraduate research experiences. That’s one example of the subawards or grants we’ve made with a number of institutions.

UIDP: What’s an interesting fact about Underwriters Laboratories that people may not know? 

Cramer: We began as a nonprofit 128 years ago based on efforts to keep the White City from burning down during the World’s Fair in Chicago. For more than a century, we’ve expanded into all sorts of other areas of safety science and we became this unusual conglomerate of being a for-profit company that is owned by a not-for-profit entity as the only stockholder. About 99% of the people in Underwriters Laboratories work for the for-profit company and about 1% are in the not-for-profit. I think that is surprising to a lot of folks who know us through the testing, inspection, and certification business—that, yes, my light bulbs and fixtures are safe and don’t melt because of that company, but who knew they were dedicated to cutting-edge research, too?

Hear from Chris Cramer as he presents on a panel with Northwestern University’s Jim Bray at our spring 2022 conference in Atlanta, UIDP Face2Face. Learn more.