Donor Spotlight: Parents Invest in Propelling Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Research

Initiating and propelling disruptive research and innovation requires inspirational ideas—and often a financial boost to bring to fruition. Kittu Kolluri and Maodong “Modern” Xu, both fathers of Columbia Engineering students, have quietly started providing that boost at Columbia with seed funds aimed at supporting the interdisciplinary research of an important group: Engineering faculty.

The two families are financing competitive seed grants for faculty members at an initial exploration stage of new innovative projects and interdisciplinary partnerships.

“Both Mr. Kolluri and Mr. Xu have provided generous support to faculty research at the critical, early stage,” Dean Mary C. Boyce said. “Their support not only benefits our professors, but also provides our graduate students with opportunities to participate in the very beginning stages of groundbreaking work.”

Last year, their support helped fund four projects from across the engineering disciplines: a multimodal robotic skin sensor, a 3D “food printer” that prints with edible materials, an investigation of a cyber insurance marketplace, and a rethinking of chemical imaging based on line probes and compressed sensing. This year, three more projects were added to the roster involving machine learning, imaging, and light-written assembly of multiscale architecture. Each project receives funds to support a doctoral graduate student and to cover additional research costs, such as materials and conference travel.

Kittu Kolluri

Kolluri sees the opportunity to help take professorial research to the next level as a way to give back—on a global scale.

“Breakthrough innovation, disruptive innovation, comes from fundamental research, and that starts with faculty,” he said.

Kolluri is a successful serial entrepreneur. He was a cofounder of Healtheon/WebMD and former executive vice president and general manager for the Security Products Group at Juniper Networks and general partner at New Enterprise Associates.

He had previously established an innovation fund at his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India. After his son started at Columbia Engineering, he became a founding contributor to the Ignition Fund, which gives grants to individual Columbia Engineering students or teams of students to help catalyze their projects to the next level.

A conversation with Dean Boyce led Kolluri, who also serves on the Columbia Engineering Board of Visitors, to get involved in funding faculty research.

“Dean Boyce came to me and said the faculty have a similar problem, where they need startup capital to get things off the ground before they can go and apply for external grants—and that was another worthy initiative,” he said. “I was happy to help get that off the ground.”

Maodong “Modern” Xu

A similar interest in helping entrepreneurs bring their ideas to market drives Xu, board chairman and CEO of Galaxy and World Group and board chairman of Galaxy Internet Group. He has founded a number of successful ventures in China, including Qilu Supermarkets, Galvez DotAd Co., Xiao Neng Technology, Welink Information Technology, and WoWo Ltd.

Xu’s efforts to integrate Internet and Internet-related technologies into traditional industry to improve their efficiency led him to decide in 2009 that he wanted to help young entrepreneurs. He founded Galaxy Internet Group, an incubator that helps startups fine-tune their business models, develop key accounts, obtain financing, and connect to research and development and to support services like human resources, accounting, and legal support. Today, Galaxy assists startups from seed rounds all the way to pre-IPO. It has fostered more than 150 companies working in areas including artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and digital entertainment.

At Columbia, Xu has continued to foster entrepreneurship and encourage interdisciplinary research. Both Xu and Kolluri are motivated by the potential they see in the Engineering faculty and students to change the world for the better.

“I think that engineering is the new liberal arts, in a way,” Kolluri said. “Engineering has a role in finding solutions to the problems that affect humanity in a positive way.”

By Jennifer Ernst Beaudry