BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Land that once was the home of livestock is now the site of the University of Illinois Research Park.
“The U of I Research Park’s roots are very much intertwined with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences,” said Laura Weisskopf Bleill, associate director of the University of Illinois Research Park. “When the South Farms were pushed south, that allowed us to grow the most dynamic tech area in the state of Illinois.”
The research park has 17 buildings that include both start-up companies as well as large corporate research and development centers.
“We now have over 120 companies and about half of them are start-ups,” Bleill said during a presentation at the 2018 WILL Ag Farm Assets Conference. “We have 2,100 people that work in the research park.”
Since the park is contiguous to the campus the companies provide an on-campus work location for students.
“The 800 students we have working in our park is what distinguishes our research park from many other university parks,” Bleill said.
Ag Tech is the fastest growing sector in the research park, the associate director said, and there are companies working across the value chain of agriculture.
“We consider Ag Tech everything from seeds to tractors and from commodities to ag finance and bio-processing,” Bleill said.
“Corporations are located at the research park because they have access to student talent of kids who have grown up on farms and are familiar with farm tech,” she explained. “They are doing projects related to data analytics, mobile app developments or augmented reality.”
Students are given real-world experience while working for the companies.
“The projects might some day end up in production,” Bleill said. “Or the projects may be feasibility studies and the students take an objective look at things.”
No one type of student is employed at the research park.
“They come from across campus, both undergraduate and graduate students and they work part time during the school year 10 to 20 hours a week and full-time in the summer,” Bleill said.
John Deere Center
A John Deere Technology Innovation Center is located at the U of I facility.
“John Deere has six technology innovation centers across the world in Moline, Illinois; Champaign, Illinois; Brazil; India; China and Germany, and they all have a different flavor,” Bleill noted. “The apps that John Deere has developed in the last three to four years have come out of Champaign and now they’re shifting their focus more towards robotics.”
Bayer Crop Science Innovation Center includes a maker’s space in its office.
“Students are not just working on their computers but actually doing prototypes and working with their hands to make things based on the project work,” Bleill said.
“The Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab recently expanded and doubled in size,” she said. “They have a mix of full-time employees as well as student interns who are putting SmartAg to work.”
One of the original products of the AGCO Acceleration Center was augmented reality, Bleill said.
“When people are constructing grain bins they have a virtual reality tool so they can see things in 3D,” she said.
“We do a lot of work to launch our start-ups,” she said. “We offer everything from providing someone to talk with to providing seed money or an introduction to investors as well as many other touch points along the way.”
EarthSense is a robots company that is deploying robots in crop fields.
“This is a faculty-founded company, and this year, they deployed about 60 robots, many in partnership with seed companies,” Bleill said. “Now they are improving them and are on their second generation robot that they plan to deploy this coming growing season.”