The Stack Archive

Uber’s fruitless academic grant an apology for staff-poaching?

Mon 21 Mar 2016

Over a year ago the global ride-sharing behemoth Uber announced ‘a strategic partnership’ with the illustrious Carnegie Mellon University – a partnership which is reported today to have borne not one single collaboration, with the suggestion that an accompanying $5.5 million grant during the fruitless union actually constitutes an apology for Uber having head-hunted so many of the university’s staff into its own research programs.

Uber is headquartered in San Francisco, but set up its Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh in 2015 – practically on the doorstep of CMU, one of one of the United States’ most advanced seats of robotics research. Subsequent to the company’s announcement of the collaboration that year, four of the CMU faculty and 36 researchers and technicians had hopped over to join Uber’s swelling (and ever-growing) rank of researchers and engineers.

Herman Herman, the director of the university’s National Robotics Engineering Center, whose staff ‘migrated’ to Uber, confirmed that the much-vaunted February 2015 announcement had led to only one action of any kind – a gift from Uber six months later constituting a $5.5 million grant to support a new robotics facility chair and three Carnegie Mellon fellowships.

Herman said: “I think they mostly realized the impact with that hiring and they want to make sure they do the right thing for the university,” and continued “It’s not a high priority for us to get joint work with them… Uber decided to give us a gift and that’s the extent of the relationship at this moment.”

Raj Rajkumar, a professor at CMU’s College of Engineering, and also the director of its Transportation Center, is phlegmatic about Carnegie Mellon’s relationship with its newest and most powerful neighbour. “The best source of new employees would be from CMU,” he said. “It would make sense for them to have a very cordial relationship with CMU.”

Setting up a well-funded robotics lab in the same city as CMU could be argued as cynical, since the prospect of a move presents little practical inconvenience to migrating staff – though it could be argued that a relationship Rajkumar views as symbiotic and useful also re-imagines CMU as the briefest of nurseries for some of the brightest robotics talent in the world – and represents the move of vanguard academic work in the field from openly-published scientific research to fiercely-guarded and proprietary corporate secrets.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick ironically summed up a better state of equilibrium between academy and industry when he announced the $5.5 million grant in September of 2015:

‘Tech companies, by their nature, focus on nearer-term engineering challenges that can push their business forward.  While universities work to advance the state of the art.  As a result they are designed to create the time and space needed to work on longer-term problems.’


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