East Meets West: Innovation Center sparks academic-business partnerships


UIC students Vishalaxi Tandel (from left) and Thomas Groom collaborate with Samantha Melchiori, digital and analytics site director for Caterpillar, and Donald Bergh, adjunct instructor in the School of Art and Design, at the UIC Innovation Center. (Photo: Jenny Fontaine)

Caterpillar is bolstering its collaboration with the UIC Innovation Center, a multidisciplinary hub of education and development that bridges academic research and real-world instruction with forward-thinking corporations.

Activities at the Innovation Center, a cross-campus initiative supported by the Office of the Provost and led by executive director Peter Pfanner, integrate the full range of disciplinary expertise offered by the colleges of Architecture, Design, and the Arts; Engineering; Business Administration; and Medicine.

Housed in a 10,000-square-foot collaboration space and research laboratory, the Innovation Center is located near the Student Services Building. The space serves as an incubator to develop and deliver ideas, products and intellectual property on behalf of the university and industry sponsors, such as Peoria-based Caterpillar, a leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.

“The Innovation Center is an outstanding working model for the university and for our corporate partners — generating new ideas and providing a unique experience for students — work on real projects by collaborating with students from many disciplines,” said Pfanner, who has research professorships in the department of industrial design and the department of urology.


Collaboration “really helps me improve my product development skills,” says Tandel (center). (Photo: Jenny Fontaine)

More than 200 students are involved in some form of interdisciplinary class, lab or project at the UIC Innovation Center each year. Faculty members representing 20 academic departments are currently teaching classes or directing labs and projects within the flexible use space.

After sponsoring an interdisciplinary course in 2015, Caterpillar extended its partnership with the Innovation Center by establishing a research lab with a goal to focus on the digital realities of the 21st century. The UIC IC CAT Lab supports multidisciplinary teams of faculty and students who develop ideas from concept to prototype.

“What drew Caterpillar to UIC was the Innovation Center with its group of highly educated millennials who could focus on product development in an interdisciplinary way,” said Samantha Melchiori, digital and analytics site director for Caterpillar. Caterpillar’s office space at the Merchandise Mart, which opened in October, is designed to connect the company with UIC and other academic institutions, and to collaborate with the tech industry that has sprouted in Chicago.

“What’s new is that we are really talking about the evolution of how academia and industry interact, and recognizing that for students to be relevant in the workplace they need to understand what industry-like products are,” Melchiori said. “We are looking for ideas; we’re not looking for a deliver-to-market product. We want unconstrained thought.”

Melchiori graduated from UIC with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and participated in UIC Innovation Center activities as a student. She is now helping to oversee Caterpillar’s role there.

“UIC offers a very effective model of ‘open innovation’ and is specifically focused on what we wanted to do,” Melchiori said. “At this point, the UIC Innovation Center has an established reputation. They have partnered with a number of large corporations and have proven successes.”

As part of their work, students are tasked with a business goal from the corporate sponsor. Students are divided into teams to examine, and sometimes reframe, the problem. They then conduct research and imagine, develop, prototype, and propose solutions.

For Caterpillar, project research has included digital solutions around safety, efficiency, professional development and education. Student teams are coached to develop presentations of their proposals, which they deliver to high-level executives.

“It’s a great experience to work with a large brand and to see how they think and work and to see the choices they make on innovation and how they spend their capital on research and development of ideas,” said Thomas Groom, an undergraduate industrial and graphic design student who participated in the
Caterpillar-sponsored lab. “It really broadens your horizons.”

Vishalaxi Tandel, a graduate student in computer science, said her work at the UIC Innovation Center allows her to expand her knowledge by working with students from other disciplines.

“It really helps me improve my product development skills, not just my programming skills,” Tandel said.

“I’m not just exposed to improving my technical skills. Working here, I’ve acquired more skills like how to communicate in a team where we come from different backgrounds. It improves my problem solving.”

According to Caterpillar, the need to have students work across disciplines and be able to brainstorm various approaches is a key component in the corporate world, nurtured in the UIC Innovation Center.

“Caterpillar gains a different perspective when we collaborate with educational arms like the UIC Innovation Center,” Melchiori said.  “The interaction between students and a company is a learning experience on both sides.”

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