CHAMPAIGN — State Farm opened its Research and Development Center in Champaign in 2005 not only as a research resource but also as a place to develop and recruit future employees with skills the company needs.
The center has succeeded “beyond our wildest dreams,” Greg Hayward, State Farm assistant vice president and actuary, said this week at a celebration of the center's 10-year partnership with the University of Illinois.
In 10 years in the University of Illinois Research Park, the Research and Development Center has grown from seven student interns and three full-time staff to 80 interns and 13 staff.
In the past decade a total of 750 interns have worked on 1,500 different projects.
Those are “truly impressive numbers,” said Peter Schiffer, U of I vice chancellor of research.
But what he found most impressive is that the interns came from across the campus.
They could be students in mathematics working on rate setting or information technology students and engineers working on hardware and software or even psychology students working on the behavior of distracted drivers.
Interns benefit from getting "real life experience in addressing business needs" and State Farm benefits from the work at the center on real projects, said Laurette Stiles, vice president of State Farm strategic resources.
State Farm's “Drive Safe and Save” program, which collects mileage and in some cases basic driving characteristics, was among projects in which the center was involved.
Interns range from freshmen to doctoral students.
Art Jackson, State Farm strategic resources manager, said the interns provide a valuable, youthful perspective.
“They open my mind to some things I did not envision before,” said Jackson, who oversees the center.
An example he gave was combining a drone with a camera and a computer tablet to scan for roof damage. It is safer and quicker than sending someone up a ladder to check each roof.
Information from the inspections also can be placed into a mathematical formula to help identify fraudulent behavior, he explained.
The newest part of center is the Maker Space, which has microcomputers and two different types of 3-D printers among its “toys.”
“The Maker Space is basically a small lab,” Jackson said.
Chad Turner, a State Farm systems supervisor, said the printers can use two different types of plastic, one of which is corn-based, and can use more than one color at the same time.
Their use includes making mock-ups of devices for use in presentations, he explained. The microcomputers can help develop such things as car-crash detection systems, he said.
State Farm's Center for Consumer Feedback and the Modeling Analytic Graduate Network also are based in the Research and Development Center.
“The demand for people with these skills far outpaces the supply,” said Bill Messner, who leads MAGNet. That's why recruitment is a big part of the program, along with skill development and coaching, he said.
RDC serves, in some ways, as a farm team for State Farm, where players — in this case, interns — hone their talents. Last year, 26 interns were hired for full-time positions with State Farm.
Stiles said, “My hope is this partnership … is something we sustain far into the future.”
Hayward noted, “The world is changing fast and we're going to need research more than ever.”
The research park is a public-private partnership whose first building opened in 2001. In addition to State Farm, major firms with facilities in the park include ADM, Caterpillar, John Deere and Yahoo. There are also smaller businesses, young tech companies in the business incubator and some university facilities.
The park's director, Laura Frerichs, said it has become a model in the way it brings together “a cross-section of minds from many different disciplines.”
Schiffer said, “The partnership with State Farm is one of our strongest, most strategic and most treasured.”
Stiles said, “Our presence here on campus and our commitment to higher education overall is part of the State Farm pledge to be a good neighbor.”
By the numbers
7 — Student interns in the first group hired at State Farm's Research and Development Center.
80 — Student interns now at State Farm's RDC.
750 — Student interns that worked at the center during its 10 years of existence.
1,500 — Projects worked on by RDC interns in the last decade.
2,000 — Square feet occupied by center when it opened.
20,000 — Square feet currently occupied.