An inside look at matching Nebraska faculty, industry partners

Industry Partners

Tiffany Lee, April 6, 2020

An inside look at matching Nebraska faculty, industry partners

Creating strong partnerships between universities and private industry is a growing priority for campuses across the country, as these collaborations can yield numerous benefits for both sides.

Josh Murman, a recent University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, is one example.

Last spring, he was a master’s student in agricultural engineering. His adviser, Husker biosystems engineer Santosh Pitla, had recently connected with the Canada-based company JCA Electronics, a relationship fostered through UNL Industry Relations. Knowing Murman was interested in using JCA’s products for his master’s project, Pitla introduced him to JCA’s head, Darcy Cook. That interaction ultimately yielded something more significant: Today, Murman works at Nebraska Innovation Campus as JCA’s first U.S.-based employee, helping provide hardware and software solutions to equipment manufacturers, including those focused on agricultural technology.

“It was definitely good for me to have a champion who valued industry relationships and experience,” said Murman, a systems engineer, of Pitla.

Murman’s pathway to JCA – the byproduct of a relationship between an academic researcher and a private company – highlights the growing importance of university-industry partnerships. For universities, companies provide training and employment opportunities for students, research funding and access to cutting-edge equipment. For industry, universities offer unmatched research expertise, a pool of prospective interns and employees, and a window into the training experience of tomorrow’s professionals.

“Our university plays a pivotal role in solving major challenges for Nebraska and the world, but we can’t do it alone,” said Bob Wilhelm, vice chancellor of research and economic development. “Industry is a crucial partner. Universities and companies each offer unique resources, knowledge and skills that, when combined, will help us generate innovative solutions and impact lives.”

Public-private, research-based partnerships are increasingly common at Nebraska. In 2019, UNL had $13.44 million in expenditures supported by industry sponsorships.  The university is looking to increase those numbers: In Nebraska’s five-year strategic plan unveiled last month, Chancellor Ronnie Green set forth a goal of achieving $450 million in annual research expenditures – including at least $30 million from the private sector. 

Teaming to enhance research

In a time when federal research dollars are increasingly scarce, university researchers are looking to nontraditional funding sources to support their work. Simultaneously, private companies have been reducing spending on in-house early stage research for the past three decades, instead looking to outside expertise to lay the groundwork for new innovations.

Together, these trends create the perfect environment for robust public-private partnerships, said Pitla, who’s worked with industry partners to advance his work in precision agriculture and robotics.

“Industry has a lot of research ideas they want to pursue, but because the end product might be five to 10 years down the line, they cannot justify doing it in-house,” said Pitla, associate professor of biological systems engineering. “But they still want to pursue those ideas. That’s where universities can come in and lay the groundwork, enabling the company to further develop the idea.”

Pitla has developed inroads with multiple industry partners since joining Nebraska in 2014. One of his collaborators is CLAAS Omaha Inc., an Omaha-based manufacturer of precision agricultural equipment. Between 2015 and 2019, the company provided Pitla funding to develop a logistics model aimed at helping farmers efficiently harvest and transport grain, with an eye toward reducing idle time and saving fuel. Pitla and the company are currently working to develop the next phase of the project.

In addition to CLAAS, Pitla has a relationship with Danfoss Power Solutions, a leader in the mobile hydraulics industry that has spurred research and teaching at Nebraska by donating cutting-edge equipment. Pitla said this ability to acquire high-tech equipment is an advantage of working with industry. 

“Industry has good infrastructure and equipment, so by developing these relationships, you get to see the latest and greatest,” Pitla said. “And the companies get to help train the next generation of engineers. If we use it in the classroom or in our research, students are exposed to it.”           

Training students and building a pipeline toward employment

Beyond boosting research, university-industry partnerships help train students to work in industry and link students to potential employers. To complete his research agreement with CLAAS, Pitla enlisted a graduate student to lead development of the logistics model. This ability to provide a student with hands-on applied research experience is crucial, as more of them seek jobs outside academia after graduation.

“About 10% of doctoral students want to go into industry, and up to 90% of master’s students,” he said. “It’s important to get industry experience because industry works in a completely different way with shorter turnaround times. They want results every six months, versus every two or three years that federal agencies expect.”

In addition to training, public-private collaborations connect students looking for jobs to employers seeking well-trained employees. Shane Swedlund is an engineering manager and head of university relations at Raven Industries, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based company partnering with Nebraska biological systems engineer Joe Luck on research related to spraying applications in agriculture. He said in addition to the research collaboration, UNL has been an important gateway to connecting with students.

Raven representatives have attended career fairs for Nebraska’s engineering and agriculture students and Swedlund has spoken to student agriculture clubs. These contacts paved the way for Raven to hire a software engineering intern from UNL last summer. The company also employs multiple Husker alums full time.

Swedlund said the benefit of interacting with students goes beyond hiring talent – it also gives the company a window into how the next generation of prospective employees is trained during school.

“An advantage for industry is to gain a perspective from the university – what’s being taught in the classroom and how universities are preparing students for the workforce,” he said.

And even when companies don’t have an immediate need to recruit or partner on research, Swedlund said it’s important to cultivate deep, long-term relationships between industry and universities, because you never know when the stars may align.

“I really do see the benefit of these relationships,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to identify specific things right away, but if you continue to make connections and get the right people talking to each other, it opens the possibility for future projects.”