A year after Uber hired away researchers, CMU robotics center rebounds
School has $11 million in federal contracts and plans for 15 to 20 hires
March 7, 2016 2:15 PM
Randy Warner and Jose Gonzalez-Mora watch Carnegie Mellon’s CHIMP Robot at CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center in May 2015.
Clark Haynes and Mike Vande Weghe prepare for a run-through of Carnegie Mellon’s CHIMP Robot in May 2015 in the control room at the university’s National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.
Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science, says the school was far from decimated when Uber hired away 40 of its researchers last spring and said it's part of the reality of academic research. “This kind of thing happens to us a few times a year,” Mr. Moore said. “We’re focused on ‘what’s next?’”
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Andrew Moore, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, is tired of people looking at him like he’s had a loss in the family.
It’s been around a year since Uber Technologies Inc. hired away 40 researchers at the school’s National Robotics Engineering Center, characterized by news reports as a “poaching” that left the center “decimated,” “gutted” and “in a crisis.”
But now that the research center is set to begin work on four major federal research contracts worth $11 million announced today, Mr. Moore wants to move beyond what happened last spring and clarify that the center is doing just fine. In an interview this morning, he explained that the school views Uber’s taking of a third of the center’s staff — including the center’s director — as a reality in academic research.
“This kind of thing happens to us a few times a year,” Mr. Moore said. “We’re focused on ‘what’s next?’”
Uber and CMU’s relationship began in February 2015, when the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company publicized its intentions to collaborate with the university’s robotics research center housed in a facility along the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville. Jeff Holden, chief product officer of Uber, said during the announcement the company was delving headfirst into robotics research and he called CMU the “best in the world at this from an academics standpoint.”
Uber set up shop in its own technology center, called the Advanced Technologies Center, in the RIDC Chocolate Factory along 43rd Street adjacent to CMU’s robotics center.
By May, several news outlets, including The Verge and Wall Street Journal, were reporting that CMU was struggling to recover following a remarkable loss in research talent to Uber. At the time, CMU dismissed the notion that there was real trouble and maintained that the flow of researchers to the private sector was natural.
Today Mr. Moore said the school was aware Uber was growing its operation by offering positions to “lots of folks in the Pittsburgh community. Among those,” he said, “many of them were from NREC.”
At the time, the center had about 25 faculty and around 100 technical staff, Mr. Moore said. Four faculty and 36 technical staff moved to Uber.
Still, he insisted, the losses were not a surprise, given that the self-driving technology Uber wanted to build up had been first demonstrated by the robotics center.
“It’s not surprising, then, what you see is a drift of the established technology” into a variety of industries, he said, noting that interest in the capabilities of self-driving cars is far-reaching.
Handling the turnover at the robotics center wasn’t as much of an issue as ensuring that the research that had begun could be successfully wrapped up. Researchers did just that, he said, and the school has been on a “huge hiring binge” for faculty across disciplines in the computer science school.
The center has added 10 new staff positions and expects to hire five to 10 more in the coming months, both to replace vacancies and for new work, said CMU spokesman Byron Spice. The center is anticipating around $18 million in revenue for the coming fiscal year, Mr. Spice said.
Mr. Moore acknowledged the center’s losses provide an extreme lesson in how universities have a hard time holding on to researchers when large companies awash in cash come in and offer astounding increases in pay. The school is upfront with new hires, he said, telling them CMU will support their research while not expecting years of loyalty.
“When we’re looking at our hiring, we have been building into it the assumption that faculty will often be doing what has actually been happening: They will be disappearing for a few years and coming back with new and interesting perspectives,” Mr. Moore said.
He could not comment specifically on the faculty and staff who left for Uber, but said, “In general, we do find plenty of faculty will disappear for a while, then will come back.”
The new contracts announced today include:
• A $4 million project for the Defense Department’s Test Resource Management Center to develop automated testing that will ensure the reliability and performance of critical software;
• A $4.2 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project that seeks to develop technology to help vehicles move through a variety of terrains;
• A $1 million U.S. Department of Energy project with Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Center that will use robotic vehicles to monitor a new energy feedstocks; and
• A $2.4 million project with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, to create automation that would enable existing aircraft to operate safely with smaller crews.
He maintained the school believes Uber’s presence in Pittsburgh is a positive sign for the broader future of robotic research.
With partners including NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, “Top tech firms want the skills Carnegie Mellon faculty, students and staff bring,” he said.
Daniel Moore: email@example.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.
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