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College of Optical Sciences partners with Uber to develop automobile project

UA is on a mission to double research expenditures to $1.2 billion by the year 2020. In order to reach that goal, the university created Tech Launch Arizona in 2011. Tech Launch helps translate ideas and inventions from UA labs to marketable products by connecting faculty and student researchers with corporations.

R.D. Castillo, UA’s senior associate of business relations, said with the increasing government cuts to education, corporate partnerships are the key to the future funding of public universities.

“It’s definitely the trend and I can tell you that it’s the trend all over the country right now,” Castillo said.

A recent corporate partnership between the College of Optical Sciences and Uber looks promising for the UA. Thomas Koch, dean of the College of Optical Sciences, reports that a research contract has been set up, but specific projects within that contract are still being discussed.

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Uber is interested in the optics program for an automobile project it is developing.

“I think the interface of their system and their approaches to mapping and safety in the realm of automobiles relies heavily on high quality and innovative solutions in optics, and that’s kind of what we’re known for,” Koch said.

Beyond the research contract, Uber gave the College of Optical Sciences a grant of $25,000 to become a principal partner in its Industrial Affiliates program. IA is a program that brings students researchers and companies together to share ideas and discuss the future of optics in a setting Koch deems a “much more engaging environment” than what you would find at a typical career fair.

UA has been ranked No. 19 in the nation for research and development expenditures among public universities and colleges by the National Science Foundation. For all the research the UA oversees, however, there is no strictly defined process for handling companies who approach the university wanting a partnership.

“That is definitely something that we are working to define so that we can make it the same for, as much as we can, for every company,” Castillo said. “Right now, if a company wants to sponsor research, what happens is they would be introduced to the associate V.P. of Research and Business Development.”

When Castillo and the associate vice president of business development, Dennis Beal, meet with prospective investors, they make sure to ask a lot of questions, reports Castillo. Their goal is to discover “what it is the company wants, where do they want to be, why do they want to get there, what are their objectives and goals for the future. So we really try to understand more than just from a research point of view, because it might not be a good fit,” Castillo said.

Professor William T. Neumann of the Eller College of Management shared that he loves corporate partnerships, “but at the end of the day, we want to make sure that our approach of being an academic institution that provides fair and unbiased sort of analysis of things doesn’t get compromised because we’re working for somebody.”

Koch says that mismatching goals is not often a problem because when corporations are introduced to faculty researchers, the faculty always has the option of turning them down.

“Working with industry, you get confronted with really good problems and you end up being the first one to work on something that nobody else even knows is a problem yet,” Koch said. “Just because you are engaged with somebody who can actually translate that research into value doesn’t mean that there is anything less exciting or fundamental about the research.”

UA continues to refine its processes in the face of increasing corporate interest in UA’s research projects and capabilities.


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