Can An Area Consortium Set Up a High-Tech Hub In Central Illinois?

Sep 10, 2020

Whether in Dubai, Pittsburgh, or Peoria, Sam Kherat believes in preparing people for the 21st century workplace.

An adjunct professor of robotics at Bradley University, Kherat recently returned to Peoria after spending the summer teaching a class of international students at Canadian University Dubai.

While there, Kherat taught robotics along with general science technology and set up an incubator program for his students.

“Young people need to learn what it takes to get a product to market. Most of the kids have a goal in mind but the journey is the thing,” he said.

A former Caterpillar Inc. employee, Kherat worked on the team that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, a 60-mile road race now viewed as one of the catalysts for the development of autonomous vehicles.

From 2007 to 2011, Kherat managed Caterpillar’s automation center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where he met Bernie Lynch, the woman who has since founded Factory Unlocked, an organization that promotes manufacturing start-ups.

Kherat now works with Lynch—remotely—as chief technology officer for Pittsburgh-based Factory Unlocked, working on a recently-received federal grant to train veterans exiting the military in the field of robotics.

“Companies need people to learn these skills—and they don’t need to be engineering skills,” said Lynch. “When it comes to skills training, there’s a whole new world ahead of us. There’s no turning back.” 

Whether it’s in the Mideast or Pittsburgh, where some 75 companies are now involved with autonomous motion research, according to Lynch, or Peoria, Kherat wants to get more people prepared for the modern workplace.

“The gap between industry and academia is widening. Of course, COVID-19 is not helping,” said Kherat, the husband of Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of the Peoria Public Schools system.

“We need coordination. One company can’t do it alone,” he said, referring to efforts such as developing autonomous vehicles.

Kherat sees central Illinois as a place where technological progress could take off.

“The business expertise is here. Along with Caterpillar, you’ve got advances at OSF Healthcare. Illinois Central College has some of the best machine shop training in the state. Eureka College has talented instructors while Bradley has super talent in the business and engineering fields,” he said.

A consortium of businesses and other area institutions could provide certification in the field of robotics, offering students training that the world is looking for, he said.

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