A $194.7 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation will establish the University of Arkansas Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R), transforming the research, innovation and economic development culture of the university. The grant is one of the largest single private gifts ever given to a university for advancing research and economic development and counts toward the $1.25 billion goal set for Campaign Arkansas, the university’s capital campaign.
“All transformational solutions start with questions,” said University of Arkansas Chancellor Joseph E. Steinmetz. “How does the University of Arkansas distinguish itself as a great research university among a sea of great and distinguished universities? How do we do that in a way that drives economic development and creates clear avenues for industry involvement? How do we ultimately change the culture of collaboration in such a way that it advances the research and commercialization profile and production of the university? And how do we change the way we do science on campus?
“The creation of an interdisciplinary and wholly integrative research institute was the answer.”
I3R is envisioned as a unique approach to research that will distinguish the University of Arkansas by creating a flexible, state-of-the-art collaborative framework designed to facilitate the integration of research across five overlapping clusters of innovation:
- Data science
- Food and technology: Food systems and the future of food
- Materials science and engineering
- Bioscience and bioengineering research in metabolism
- Integrative systems neuroscience
The grant will grow the university’s research engine and also drive commercialization and entrepreneurship education.
“Arkansas has long been known for its entrepreneurial spirit and as a place where businesses thrive. This grant will support the University of Arkansas as it seeks to drive innovation and transform entrepreneurship and research to commercialization for industries nationwide,” said Steuart Walton, chair of the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation Board.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said, “The enhancement of the University of Arkansas’s focus on research to commercialization and entrepreneurship education will have a lasting impact on the state, its businesses, and economy. The funding is a clear position of confidence in the University of Arkansas and will strengthen their position as a leading public research university.”
“Even during this time of uncertainty — in higher education and beyond — we know the University of Arkansas is positioned to become a national leader in research and innovation,” said Heather Larkin, president and CEO of the Arkansas Community Foundation and board member of the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. “This grant is a step toward building a stable economy and a future where we are better equipped to respond to a changing environment.”
The grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation will be used support the construction of the university’s new research facility, which will house the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research and to endow the I3R, which will serve as the hub for many activities.
Not only will the building and institute add much-needed research space, and act as an interactive and integrated hub for the innovation clusters, it will drive innovation on the edges between identified research clusters.
Funding will help attract and hire 20 new faculty with established research programs and a history of external support. These hires will seek to diversify the University of Arkansas faculty in experiential as well as demographic dimensions.
“This grant will have an enormous impact not only on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region and state, but on our campus as well,” said Charles Robinson, interim provost and vice chancellor for student and academic affairs. “This change will be accomplished through deep engagement of university faculty and students in research, discovery and innovation, entrepreneurship education and commercialization of research.”
The goals for this grant are to:
- Increase external support for research and grow the research engine.
- Increase industry collaboration.
- Grow commercialization of university research as well as university-related entrepreneurship.
- Align the university’s productivity, expertise, and reputation to be competitive with the top public institutions in the country.
“The difference to the Northwest Arkansas economy we expect to realize in the next 20 to 30 years includes a significant increase in the scale and scope of the university’s research profile and reputation,” Steinmetz said. “We will realize an increase in federal research dollars expended locally, which aids the overall economy of the region and state, and is a short-term multiplier.
“The longer-term results will be seen through the attraction of a diverse group of people for whom an academic and entrepreneurial ecosystem is appealing, and who will add intellectual and creative talent to Arkansas. Increases in applied research, commercialization and resulting startups will also impact everything from regional quality of life to healthcare.”
In addition to establishing I3R, the grant also provides funding for the I3R Research Facility, entrepreneurship education and an expansion of the University of Arkansas’ presence in Northwest Arkansas through the establishment of a physical presence in Bentonville, designed to serve as a spoke of the I3R hub. The Bentonville Campus is subject to approval by the University of Arkansas System Board of Trustees and appropriate accrediting agencies.
- Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R) – $88 million
- I3R Research Facility – $89 million
- Entrepreneurship Education – $3.5 million
- Bentonville Campus – $14 million
Information about I3R programs and project support, and a more detailed funding breakdown are available as a part of the I3R Fact Sheet.
This is the second major investment by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation into research and commercialization at the University of Arkansas. In 2018, a “phase I” grant of $23.7 million provided the groundwork for some significant infrastructure needs at the U of A.
“The Foundation has enabled the university to build our strategy and capacity in research, sponsored programs, signature faculty hires and technology transfer,” Steinmetz said. “We have also made great strides in invention disclosures and patent productivity, offering funding for research with high potential for commercialization, a gap fund for emerging startups, and professional development and supports for would-be entrepreneurs both on and off-campus.”
The “phase I” grant was also instrumental in building the infrastructure to support the Technology Ventures Office, the Office of Economic Development, and the Office of Research and Innovation. These investments have resulted in many significant positive outcomes, including:
- Patent productivity reaching an all-time high of 130
- Significant staffing up in Technology Ventures and research grant development specialists
- “Corporate concierge” to connect industry to campus R&D capabilities
- $180.2 million in total R&D expenditures; $5.1 million in industry-sponsored research expenditures
- 14 research projects with high commercialization potential funded
- 15 teams participated in regional NSF Innovation-Corps and 2 teams participated in national I-Corps experiential education providing valuable insight into entrepreneurship, starting a business
- $105,000 in gap funding was awarded to four teams
- Launched a Startup Village, providing supports and services to startups
- Three startup companies licensed U of A technologies
- Eliminated barriers to industry research connectivity by changing U of A System policies allowing industry to keep IP generated at the U of A
- Laid the infrastructure that enabled the university and Northwest Arkansas Council to launch the Small Business Emergency Assistance program in eight days in March 2020, from concept to first customer following the COVID-19 pandemic