The Institute for Integrative & Innovative Research — I3R — now under construction at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville “is the new model for public research and partnerships for economic growth,” said its executive director, Ranu Jung. “The I3R building is the physical hub.”
I3R, funded through a $194.7 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, wants to bring great minds together to research problems, develop innovative solutions and then find ways to bring those solutions to the market, whatever market that might be.
John English, the university’s vice chancellor for research and innovation, is one of three officials who will oversee the facility’s operations; Jung and newly hired Vice Chancellor for Economic Development Mike Malone are the others. English said I3R is a vital part of the university’s emphasis on improving research funding in recent years.
“This is the first building totally dedicated to research that we have ever had,” English said. “This is all about growing our research enterprise. We’re doing this in ways that have never been done before. It is going to be creative genius. We want this to be broadly used for the research community and the industry and help provide solutions.”
Jung was hired in October 2021 to run the research center; she had been the head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Florida International University since 2012 where she received 12 patents for biomedical and neural engineering.
The groundbreaking for the $88 million facility on Dickson Street was held April 1; U.S. Sen. John Boozman, interim Chancellor Charles Robinson and university trustees attended.
While the building is under construction by CDI Contractors LLC of Little Rock — the expected completion date is in the summer of 2024 — Jung makes do with a temporary office in the Administration Building on campus.
Jung said I3R is not just about achieving commercial success, although that will play a role with partnerships with local businesses, but is also about making an impact on society. “I want to stress that we are committed to taking the discoveries and technologies not just to commercialization but to deployment at scale,” Jung said.
Boozman, a two-term senator seeking reelection, gave brief remarks at the ceremony. He said much money and time are spent on research, and he appreciated that the university was taking a new approach to solving age-old problems.
“One of the biggest problems is … getting that research transformed where it is commercially viable where it can actually help people,” said Boozman, a UA graduate. “We appreciate the fact that you’re attacking it. It doesn’t matter what kind of institute you are — you can be the biggest in the country or the most economically sound or the smallest — it is all the same problem. Everyone is having that same difficulty.
“Thinking outside the box, not just throwing dollars and doing it the same way that we’ve done it, but to come up with a different system is really very exciting.”
First Up: Metabolic Health
When the UA announced the I3R project in July 2020, it said the research facility would focus on five “clusters”: data science, food and technology, materials science and engineering, metabolic bioscience, and integrative systems neuroscience.
The goal of Jung and I3R is to integrate experts across a variety of disciplines and backgrounds in the cluster areas to work innovatively toward solving a common problem. Jung said I3R’s first challenge would tackle metabolic health, researching how food and exercise affects health and then developing better foods, technologies and medical interventions to create better health results.
“Now we will fuse and integrate these clusters,” Jung said. “We will break down traditional disciplinary boundaries and, by engaging members from across the university and in partnership with industry and our community, we will converge in support of a common mission to engender the growth of northwest Arkansas and the state. We will take on grand challenges and driven by purpose we will commit to transformative discoveries and translating them to ensure societal impact.”
In a later interview with Arkansas Business, Jung broke down the first challenge.
“The problems that we have are very rarely solvable by one set of people or one set of expertise or one set of thought,” Jung said. “This says, ‘What is the problem, what is the need?’ And then we bring all hands on deck to solve the problem from all different thought leaders. Everybody comes together to solve the problem together.
“Those five clusters are the ingredients for a recipe for a good meal. The good meal has to be put together. The first meal we are going to cook is addressing metabolic health.”
Walton Touts Collaboration
Steuart Walton was among those who participated in the dirt-turning ceremony at the site, which is currently a parking lot across Dickson Street from the university’s White Engineering Hall.
Walton, the grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton, is the chairman of the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. He said the partnership came about after UA officials visited Austin, Texas, where he and his brother, Tom, were living at the time; the officials wanted to talk with University of Texas administrators about an innovation center they were working on.
“I think economic growth and education are the two more powerful levers for the state to continue its path toward progress,” Walton said. “As great a place as Arkansas is, we have got to do better and keep the pedal down. Honestly, innovation is the key and the integrative piece is really key and is absolutely unique here.
“Getting different colleges working together and getting out of the siloed approach and more into this collaborative approach is something we are really excited to see from the university.”
Walton said the collaborative approach has worked for the region in general in myriad ways. The success of one city generally helps the whole area; the same concept is the premise of I3R.
“It is very rarely you get a conjunction of a group of university leaders, a group of philanthropic leaders and a community that is being grown to come together and make something new together,” Jung said. “Think of the [Razorback] Greenway that connects Bentonville to Fayetteville. It is like a river connecting things together. It is a similar way, instead of a river, thinking about the communities all connected together to address a common problem we all have.”