UA receives $194.7M Walton grant to boost research; part of funding to support Bentonville ‘campus’

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 9,191 views 

University of Arkansas Chancellor Joe Steinmetz, left, and Steuart Walton during an event this past fall.

In 2011, for the first time, the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville obtained the elite classification as a Research I (RI) university.

RI is a top-tier and sought-after status in higher education. It means the UA engages in the highest research activity levels based on its number of doctorates awarded and research expenditures. The list is reviewed and updated every three years by Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, based at Indiana University in Bloomington.

The UA has maintained the RI classification — which currently includes less than 3% of U.S. universities — since 2011. The university’s research expenditures totaled over $175 million in fiscal year 2018, the highest in the university’s history. The number dipped just slightly ($172.6 million) in fiscal year 2019.

“There’s been a steady progression since [2011], I think, to build the university’s research potential,” University of Arkansas Chancellor Joe Steinmetz told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal in a recent interview. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve added at least 15% annually to those research expenditures.”

Steinmetz, who succeeded G. David Gearhart as UA chancellor on Jan. 1, 2016, should see the UA further distinguish itself in the research arena during the next decade and beyond. That’s because of a significant financial gift announced Tuesday (July 14).

The Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation says it will donate $194.7 million to the UA. The five-year grant will strengthen the university’s research initiatives and, among other things, support the construction of a new research facility. It’s called the University of Arkansas Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R). Steinmetz described the building as an interdisciplinary and wholly integrative research institute. The I3R will be on the UA campus. A university news release did not disclose the location, specific size and other details about the I3R, such as a construction timeline.

According to the UA, the donation is one of the most significant single private gifts ever given to a university for advancing research and economic development. It also counts toward the $1.25 billion fundraising goal set for Campaign Arkansas, the university’s soon-to-close capital campaign.

“All transformational solutions start with questions,” Steinmetz said. “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 collaboration culture to advance the research and commercialization profile and production of the university? And how do we change the way we do science on campus?”

The answers to those questions, Steinmetz says, lie in industry partners and private support.

“We have done well with federal grants over the past five years or so,” he said. “We have done less well in industry-sponsored research and the research that many universities get from the private sector. That’s a big piece of this that pushes us even further and quicker along the pathway of being one of the leaders in the country with our research.”

Steinmetz envisions I3R as the “backbone” for five broad research areas:

  • 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.

The Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation supports education and community initiatives in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

“We have a vision for the region and for the state that we want to support any way we can,” said Steuart Walton, the foundation’s board chairman and a grandson of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton. “And if you look around the country, you see a strong university presence and higher education institutions as being critical to a vibrant economy. You can look at the [San Francisco] Bay Area, Boston, New York, Salt Lake City, Denver, the Austin and central Texas area. It’s a critical enabler to the economy of the state and the region.

“This puts the university in a position to pursue research in a new and different way with more vigor. We see it as a real supercharge to the local innovation economy here, which is important to our long-term viability.”

Information about I3R programs and project support, and a more detailed funding breakdown are available in a PDF at this link.

Tuesday’s grant announcement is the second phase of funding by the foundation to the UA focused on research and commercialization efforts. The Phase I grant, $23.7 million, was announced in November 2018. The UA says that gift built the infrastructure to support the Technology Ventures Office, the Office of Economic Development and the Office of Research and Innovation.

Other achievements directly related to the Phase I grant listed Tuesday by the UA include:

  • 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 two 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 UA technologies
  • Eliminated barriers to industry research connectivity by changing UA System policies allowing industry to keep IP generated at the UA
  • 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 the first customer following the COVID-19 pandemic

A funding overview that accompanied Tuesday’s announcement indicated $88 million of the Phase II grant is earmarked for the I3R and an additional $89 million for the I3R research facility. The I3R is the actual research framework. The facility is the labs, building and technology to support the research.

$3.5 million is for entrepreneurship education and $14 million is to establish a UA physical presence in Bentonville. A campus in Benton County is subject to approval by the UA System Board of Trustees and appropriate accrediting agencies.

Steinmetz said the Bentonville piece would be a “spoke” of the I3R hub in Fayetteville.

“For years, universities like ours — and particularly ours — have operated by opening our doors to the outside world and saying, ‘Come on to campus,’” he said. “It’s time for us to reach out and have a presence that makes it easier for people to make contacts to the university. We see this campus or annex or center or whatever it turns out to be as a real extension of the university when it comes to research. It’s a place where we can focus on operations that’s right in the backyard of some of the most vibrant companies and private sector concerns that there are anywhere in the country.

“Our faculty are looking forward to this.”

Steinmetz said the initial plan is to find lease space in Bentonville to start operations “as quick as possible.”

“When we see how extensive it is, we can make some decisions down the road about what more permanent or more long-term look like,” he said.

Steinmetz said the grant’s significant impact is not only to get the I3R building constructed but also to recruit and hire additional “star” faculty to push the research forward.

“We are a talent attractor,” he said. “That’s a big role that universities will play moving forward, and I think this will give us a leg up on many institutions to do that.”