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Founding the World's Premier Automotive and Motorsports Academic Research Center

Updated: Mar 21

People are sensing and preparing for dramatic AI-driven change. There are lots of opportunities to create enormous value with intelligent agents. Too many, in fact. 

The leader who excels defines clearly what is essential to add value to the world in a novel way, attracts top talent to realize that vision, ensures the team has the resources needed and knows how they will be held accountable, and then gets out of the way and lets talented, creative people do what only they can do. 

Clemson University president Jim Barker executed this better than anyone I’ve seen in my career.

Shortly after becoming president in 1999, Jim set a strategic priority for Clemson to become a top-20 public university in the country. Jim named an aspiration that already existed among the broader Clemson community. The vast majority of Clemson constituents bought into a vision bigger than themselves. In subsequent years, it was rare to be in a meeting at Clemson, from recruiting a dean to constructing a building, that someone did not ask how the issue being considered contributed to Clemson’s top-20 goal. 

Not that there weren’t naysayers. If some people don’t chafe, the idea isn’t truly transformational. Some long-term faculty members believed Clemson was abandoning its roots. Some South Carolina citizens agreed, especially if their children were no longer qualified to be admitted. The greatest resistance to transformational change inevitably comes from those who benefit from the status quo and have difficulty visualizing themselves as a part of the redefined future. 

Though only thirty miles apart, Clemson and Greenville historically had weak linkages when Jim became president. Many people in Greenville didn’t know you could get to Clemson other than six football Saturdays a year. To help realize his top-20 vision for Clemson, Jim reached outside the internal Clemson community and invited diverse Greenville leaders to a public forum where he asked, "If Clemson was in Greenville, what would we do differently?" Greenville leaders who were interested self-identified by showing up.

George Fletcher, a successful business and civic leader, stepped up as a champion to keep a small group of colleagues who attended the public forum engaged for about a year. We explored what research Clemson research could do in Greenville. Research from construction to textiles was considered before 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. 

This seemed to fit the community. Michelin was among the leaders of a thriving, internationally-based automotive industry that had grown in the Southeastern United States. Michelin located production facilities in South Carolina, followed by one of three global research facilities and, ultimately, its North American headquarters. BMW built its largest manufacturing facility in the world in Spartanburg, SC. A significant supply chain grew up around BMW. Many other manufacturers in the region, from Milliken in textiles to KEMET in electronics, served the U.S. automotive industry. 

Doug Harper, CEO of a construction firm in our group, heard about the wind tunnel and said, “Thank goodness. Something I can build. The talk about research was rolling my eyes in the back of my head.” He paid for a business plan to be prepared. This was a hypothesis of who the potential customers were, what their problem was being solved, what capabilities were required to solve the problem, what resources would be required to build the facility, and who would manage it. Basically, it was the Solution Hypothesis in the Discovery Phase of the Innovation Commercialization Canvas.

Chris Przirembel, Clemson’s Vice President of Research, approached BMW Manufacturing’s president, Helmut Leube, with the plan for BMW to rent time on the wind tunnel. Quickly, Helmut told Chris this wasn’t a solution to a problem BMW had. BMW had research in Germany and didn’t need research in South Carolina. After asking a couple more times and being told no, Chris closed his laptop and had the presence of mind to ask the only question left. “What can Clemson do to help BMW?” Helmut said BMW would be interested in partnering with Clemson to attract and develop world-class talent. 

I’ve worked with new entrepreneurs who made the mistake of developing solutions in search of problems. In this case, a group of experienced, successful business leaders committed this faux pas. Someone should have gotten BMW and other potential customers into this conversation long before a lot of money was spent on developing a business plan. Yet no one did, including me. Don’t make that mistake. 

Out of this conversation emerged the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Leadership (CU-ICAR), a partnership including Clemson, the State of South Carolina, local governments, BWM, Michelin, and other industry partners. Over $230 million was invested to position Clemson as a world-class talent magnet for South Carolina. 

With four well-endowed research chairs, the Carroll A. Campbell Graduate Engineering Center has attracted preeminent scholars who attract top graduate students. The Campbell Center is specifically designed with major industry partners, including BMW and Michelin, to produce a new kind of automotive engineer needed by the automotive industry of the future. Sage Automotive Interiors, one of the country’s largest producers of automotive fabrics, spun out of Milliken and is now headquartered at CU-ICAR. The density of world-class talent around CU-ICAR attracted other companies, including J-TEKT. Proterra, developer of the “bus of tomorrow,” located their headquarters on the campus of CU-ICAR and raised $130 million from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, GM Ventures, and others. 

Jim established the strategic priorities of Clemson being a top-20 public university. He organized a public conversation to communicate the objective and then to identify and engage champions with ideas about how to get there. George stepped up to organize a small group of colleagues that kept more private discussions going about how to achieve Clemson’s objective. George provided a platform for Don to present his vision and then for Doug and Chris to help mold it into a complete solution through an iterative learning process. The solution was reframed and then validated by the customer, Helmut, who clarified the problem he really had and how Clemson could help solve it. 

The goal of the Greenville community was to leverage its critical mass of world-class automotive talent in the surrounding region to make Greenville an epicenter of the global transformation of mobility. CU-ICAR is the West Point of mobility, training the next generation of lieutenants to create the future of the automotive industry. 

In December 2009, CU-ICAR significantly enhanced the university’s reputation by producing the nation's first Ph.D. in Automotive Engineering. Dr. John Limroth, of Austin, Texas, was hired as a tire performance research engineer with the Michelin Americas Research Company in Greenville.


By 2009, Clemson had climbed to No. 22 in the U.S. News ranking and was recognized as a “school to watch.” At a retirement reception for Jim shortly thereafter, I asked him, “If you had one thing in your time as president to do over, what would it be?” Without missing a beat, he smiled, saying, “I’d have set the goal to be a top-25 public university.”

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You may not know this but, in tandem with help from Chris Przimbel, Sam Konduros and I wrote the original marketing and positioning plan for CU-ICAR as it was reconciled to focus on talent development and presented it to the Clemson Board and other parties pre-acceptance. It was one of my favorite assignments ever, and I can still see its impact today! Sam Patrick

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20 mar
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Interesting reminder of the “real” story behind the successful founding of CUICAR!

If you ride thru CUICAR today, you can see that only 1 of 5 neighborhoods has been developed.

There is room to grow new innovation hubs in the next few years!

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