Be Inspired by the Amazing Story the Startup of a Premier Graduate Engineering School

The key isn’t whether the first pass at a transformational idea is right, but getting the idea in front of prospective customers as soon as possible and iterating to what they say is right.

Clemson University is in a rural corner of South Carolina, about a 45 minute car ride from the largest metropolitan area in the state, Greenville. Shortly after becoming president in 1999, Jim Barker set a goal of becoming a top 20 public university, an aspiration that already existed among the broader Clemson community. Greenville was experiencing a renaissance and had high aspirations too. Sensing that Clemson needed Greenville, and vice versa, Jim called a meeting of a few dozen of us and asked, “If Clemson was in Greenville, what would we do differently?” That profound question sparked thoughts from better town and gown relationships to research collaborations. Then we all went back to our day jobs.

George Fletcher, a successful civic leader, followed up asking Jim if he could continue a conversation about Clemson research in Greenville. “Well of course,” Jim said. A few of us met monthly for a while to consider research in areas where Greenville had deep roots, like textiles, construction, and environmental, but nothing got much traction. The number of people attending the meetings dropped off.

Then Don Rice, Director of the Clemson Brooks Motor Sports Institute, suggested building a rolling track wind tunnel like facilities in Europe, but unique in North America. The academic background of Chris Przirembel, Clemson’s Vice President of Research, was computational fluid dynamics, so a windtunnel seemed like a great idea. It fit the region’s NASCAR heritage and base of automotive manufacturers led by BMW and Michelin.

Doug Harper, owner of a construction company got excited. While the research discussion rolled his eyes in the back of his head, the wind tunnel was something he could build. He paid for a business plan including a snazzy PowerPoint presentation.

Chris approached BMW Manufacturing’s president, Helmut Leube, with the plan for BMW to rent time on the wind tunnel. A few minutes into the presentation, Helmut said, “We don’t need research here.” Given the effort put into developing the plan Chris kept going. Helmut again said, “We don’t need research,” yet Chris continued. The third time Helmut said, “Chris, BMW has research in Germany and doesn’t need research in South Carolina,” Chris closed his laptop, crestfallen.

A lot of work by a lot of smart people trying to sell a solution to a problem that didn’t exist crashed and burned on contact with the customer.

Then Chris asked the only question remaining. What is BMW’s problem that Clemson could solve? Helmut said BMW needed to attract and develop world-class talent. The seed sprouted that became the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, CU-ICAR.

Over $230 million was invested in the CU-ICAR partnership including Clemson, the State of South Carolina and local governments, BWM, Michelin, and other industry partners to build a brand new graduate engineering school from the dirt up in a Greenville pine forest. The Carroll A. Campbell Graduate Engineering Center is designed to be the West Point of mobility, training the next generation of lieutenants to create the future of the automotive industry.

Sage Automotive Interiors, one of the country’s largest producers of automotive fabrics, located its headquarters at CU-ICAR. Other companies began to come, including J-TEKT and American Titanium Works. Proterra, developer of the all electric “bus of tomorrow,” announced plans to build a full scale, state-of-the-art research and development center and manufacturing plant on the campus of CU-ICAR. Subsequently Proterra raised $130 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, GM Ventures, and others. Ralph Hulseman was instrumental in the development of CU-ICAR while at Michelin and started the technology company Hoowaki which worked closely with CU-ICAR. My company, InnoVenture worked with Michelin to create InnoMobility, a global community of innovators and entrepreneurs focused on the transformation of mobility.

In December 2009, the nation’s first PhD Automotive Engineer, Dr. John Limroth, graduated from CU-ICAR and was employed by the Michelin Americas Research Company in Greenville.

BINGO! The talent magnet turned on.

By 2009, Clemson climbed to № 22 in the U.S. News ranking and was recognized as a “school to watch.” At a retirement party, I asked Jim if he would change anything about his time as President. Without missing a beat, he smiled saying, “Yea, I’d have made the goal to be a top 25 public university.”

The 2008/2009 great recession hit with a vengeance, pushing many in the automotive industry close to bankruptcy. CU-ICAR’s momentum stalled as industry partners battened down the hatches to outlast the storm. Each year produces another class of PhD and Masters automotive engineers, but the rich innovation village of automotive research facilities envisioned around CU-ICAR’s talent pipeline hasn’t materialized. Unfortunately without that there is not much automotive research in Greenville so most graduates leave to find jobs elsewhere. Proterra has now moved its headquarters to Silicon Valley. Dr. Limroth joined an electric vehicle company in California.

Today, CU-ICAR is a glass half full for Clemson and Greenville. It produces a pipeline of world class engineering talent that was inconceivable before Jim Barker called the first meeting twenty years ago. It’s time to call the next community meeting to discuss how to grow the automotive research village to take CU-ICAR, Clemson, and Greenville to the next level.

This time customers need to be in the discussion from the beginning.

— — — — — — — —

This is a lesson from my career about seeing around the corner to find opportunity in the turbulent times we are living through. How can my experience help you take your organization to the next level by defining what is essential, attracting an outstanding team, holding them accountable, and letting go? Contact me at and let’s find a time to talk. John Warner




Whether you are creating your own organization or working for someone else, these are lessons to create your future as you choose.

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John Warner

John Warner

Serial entrepreneur sharing 40 years of insights to control your destiny in our turbulent times

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