June 09, 2015      

Uber Technology Inc.’s bold raid on Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics research group will be remembered for some time. The car-sharing startup reportedly recruited 40 researchers early this year from Carnegie Mellon’s well-regarded National Robotics Engineering Center.

In the aftermath, two things are certain: Top university robotics researchers are hot commodities, and schools will pay more attention to them lest they leave in a herd. And administrators will have to start writing anti-poaching clauses into public-private partnership agreements. However, the incident should have little long-term effect on such partnerships, said experts.

This event is unusual, said Julio Ottino, dean of Northwestern University’s McCormick School. “I can’t think of anything like this happening” in universities, he said.

Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) apparently had no anti-poaching language in its partnership agreements. Such clauses are common among businesses, but they are a rarity between universities and research partners.

“This doesn’t mean partnerships [between the private sector and schools] should be stopped,” said Ottino. “I don’t think it’s even going to cool the growth of partnerships. We need each other.”

Details of the raid are difficult to come by. Uber, which has raised $4.4 billion in venture funds and debt financing this year, did not return a request for comment posted to its media relations page. Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) reiterated its position in a June 1 statement:

NREC remains one of the premier robotics facilities in the nation, with a bright future. The attention it receives is testament to the distinctive value it brings to the field. As CMU continues its strong growth in its areas of leadership, we anticipate and embrace movement by researchers between academia and industry, and we look forward to a strong continued relationship with Uber and other industry partners.

“On one level, CMU got caught unaware by Uber, yet there is some hope for an ongoing relationship,” said Michael Santoro, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School.

Automation experts go AWOL

The Wall Street Journal reported that 40 people were recruited from a total staff of about 100. It’s still unclear who has left Carnegie Mellon. Emails to NREC faculty including machine-learning and sensor authority Drew Bagnell, an associate research professor, yielded, “I’m on sabbatical at the Uber Advanced Technology Center. I apologize. This account will only be checked irregularly, and I’ll be unable to accept any new reviews or projects.”

Uber's facilities in Pittsburgh

Uber opened its lab near CMU in Pittsburgh.

The school has said that center director Tony Stentz took a leave of absence to investigate new technical opportunities, but Marketwatch identified Stentz as one of the people who went to Uber in late February. Stentz had led the center for 18 years.

The recruitment occurred over several weeks. Reports indicate it was occurring even as Uber and Carnegie Mellon announced on Feb. 2 that they intended to collaborate on robotics research and create the Uber Advanced Technologies Center. Neither venture has been finalized, although there is a website for the Uber center. It advertises many job openings, each of which links back to Uber’s site. There is no mention of Carnegie Mellon.

“I’d be nervous if no one was trying to take one of our people,” said Ottino. It would indicate that his programs were not innovative or relevant, he explained.

Uber reportedly sweetened the pot by offering pay raises, and its placement of the Uber Advanced Technology Center close to CMU’s campus in Pittsburgh now looks like a move calculated to make it easier for researchers to switch allegiance, despite some long tenures.

Uber, Google start from scratch with vehicles

San Francisco-based Uber’s business model is predicated on people who own vehicles giving rides for a fee to those who don’t. It is all but inevitable that autonomous cars will transport people, ending their need for their own cars (or taxis, for that matter). But automakers can and will adopt the model of autonomous vehicles. Uber does not make cars, and it’s unclear if Uber owns the cars that it leases to some drivers.

The staff shifts, which involved a technology services company and a robotics research team, are significant.

In addition to major automakers, Uber is competing with Google, which is also conducting research into self-driving vehicles. Some industry observers have noted that driver-assist technologies are more likely in the short term, but automakers and companies such as Google and Uber are also pursuing driverless technologies.

Targeting a robotics firm is unusual because industrial automation has been a mature, predictable market for decades. With the advent of sophisticated, cheaper sensors and advances in software, robotics has regained some of its old luster.

On the other hand, most technology investment by far goes to social media and other information technology plays. This could be the starting gun for a marketwide reappraisal of robotics’ short- and long-term value.

State and federal governments do little to prevent poaching, said Nasir Pasha, managing attorney at Pasha Law PC. Pasha has written about about recruiting and preventing poaching.

“Only three or four states outlaw poaching,” he said. “The rest put restrictions on it.” This indicates that executives and policy-makers think recruiting is a net benefit for society, Pasha said. The Uber-Carnegie Mellon situation is unusual, he said, and the university might try to write contracts that prevent wholesale recruiting.

“But what is the school supposed to do? It wants its students and faculty to go on to bigger things,” because that increases the university’s prestige and reach, he said.

Carnegie Mellon and its robotics center themselves are expected to recover. The center lost millions of dollars in contracts when Uber came knocking — some estimates put it at almost half of its contract commitments.

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Obviously, some organizations will give a second thought to partnering with CMU, but both Ottino and Santoro agreed that the university’s reputation in automation is among the very best globally. Any caution will fade.

Robotics faculty and students, particularly those deep in computer science, are the winners.

“These people can almost name their price now,” according to Ottino, who recently created Northwestern’s first master’s program in robotics.