Academia Meets Industry
The Stanford SystemX Alliance, a collaboration between Stanford University and industry leaders, produces world-class technology research and outstanding Ph.D. graduates.
For more than 35 years, Stanford University’s Center for Integrated Systems (CIS) has been an industry-leader in advancing electrical engineering, technology and computing research. When CIS was founded in 1978, the university’s goal was to unite the best people from different engineering disciplines to collectively address the industry’s challenges. Together, they were able to problem-solve within a collaborative academic environment.
The university took another giant leap forward in 2015 when it transitioned CIS to a new program called the Stanford SystemX Alliance, in order to modernize and better address the ever-changing innovation needs of the future.
Creating the system
Officially formed in 2014, SystemX remains a unique collaboration between Stanford University and select member companies to produce world-class technology research and top-level Ph.D. graduates. Its stated mission is to work to “enable truly ubiquitous sensing, computing and communication with embedded intelligence.” SystemX also stresses the need for an alliance between all engineering industry clusters, including materials, devices, circuits, architecture and systems. Through its specialized research focus areas, Ph.D. fellowships and knowledge exchange programs, SystemX aims to combine the strengths of the university and its industry partners in the United States, like Google, Intel, Oracle and IBM.
Companies can join the SystemX Alliance by paying an annual membership fee to Stanford. Annual membership fees range from $100,000 (Rs. 64 lakhs approximately) for associate membership to $175,000 (Rs. 1.1 crore approximately) for full membership. The fees help underwrite the cost of funding specialized research mutually beneficial to the university and the member companies. Members also gain access to SystemX’s exclusive series of panels, workshops and e-seminars, where top international researchers in the engineering field come to exchange knowledge and collaboratively work on topics like the National Academy of Engineers’ 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. With SystemX, knowledge flows in both directions, with the main focus being real-time interaction and collaboration between industry leaders and the university.
Here are a few research programs currently offered to member companies by SystemX.
Focus Area Research
A key feature of SystemX research is the Focus Area partnership. Here, member companies allocate a portion of their membership fees to support research into a larger technology challenge by several teams of Stanford faculty and Ph.D. students, who work in close cooperation with experts from supporting firms. This process allows member companies to leverage joint efforts that bring together several research topics and maximizes collaboration among multiple ongoing research projects.
The ongoing SystemX Focus Areas include design productivity, computation for data analytics, The Internet of Everything, energy and power management systems, biomedical interfaces, heterogeneous integration, and photonic and quantum technologies. These Focus Areas are expected to have a three- to five-year lifespan, and are renewed, revised or retired afterward.
One experience that stands out from my time as an undergraduate in the U.S. is when I got the opportunity to work as an independent researcher with my university’s Department of Statistics during my freshman year. I worked on a project with a sophomore, under the guidance of our adviser, to interpret data collected by a nonprofit from the forests of Peru. We ran an analysis to figure out the best period to harvest certain forest products to maximize earnings of the native Indian tribes. The project was fascinating and rewarding in its own way, but the Undergraduate Research Award I received was the icing on the cake. I was also fortunate to disseminate the project’s findings at an undergraduate research conference, an experience I treasure to this day.
—Vaibhav Jain is an undergraduate student at George Washington University.
SystemX also continues Stanford University’s successful tradition of “Fellow-Mentor-Advisor” (FMA) relationships, where a member company supports a Stanford Ph.D. student (fellow), who works closely with a member company expert (mentor) to conduct targeted research under the guidance of university faculty (advisor). This program typically involves one specific project that funds one Ph.D. student—a model that has proven to be successful for many decades at Stanford. It is ideal for small-scale research projects with a specific Stanford faculty member, as opposed to the more widely collaborative Focus Area Research, which involves several different research groups and member companies.
The SystemX Alliance reserves a portion of its member company fees to provide seed grants to innovative research proposals. These grants promote research and student engagement that reinforce SystemX’s emphasis on “system thinking” and “interdisciplinary cooperation.” In the Headlights Program, any amount from $50,000 (Rs. 32 lakhs approximately) up to $150,000 (Rs. 96 lakhs approximately) can be awarded to a research group or a team of several research groups. The goal of the program is to explore unresearched topics in both industry and academia.
When CIS was founded in 1978, complex integrated systems were only beginning to involve experts from different disciplines, like computer architects, circuit engineers, material engineers and software design engineers. Today, with the emergence of the SystemX Alliance, the partnership between Stanford University and leading industry companies continues to boldly blaze new paths to discover solutions for current and future challenges. By placing a stronger emphasis on application-driven, system-oriented research and creating more coherent focus areas, SystemX is working toward modernizing CIS and building stronger ties between academia and industry.
Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.