Uber is giving Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab $5.5 million after ransacking it for talent

Raw deal?
Raw deal?
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
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Uber announced today (Sept. 9) that it will donate $5.5 million to Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center to support a new faculty chair in robotics and three graduate fellowships. It’s part of the partnership established in February between the company and the university to help develop driverless cars.

What goes unmentioned in Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s blog post and the school’s press release about the donation is that in the midst of that partnership’s formation, Uber went on a poaching spree that ended in the company hiring away at least 40 of the university’s leading researchers and scientists to aid in its development of driverless car technology.  

It left what had been a leading robotics research institution in “crisis,” the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall). Uber used its formidable cash reserves to offer huge salaries to attract the scientists.  

A few million dollars, a faculty chair, and some fellowships don’t seem to quite make up for the loss, over the course of a few short months, of a significant portion of senior staff and a reported $13 million in expected contracts slated to be overseen by scientists who wound up leaving for Uber.

Some have argued that the talent raid actually helps CMU by positioning it as a feeder to lucrative industry jobs. And there might be more investment coming: Kalanick coyly mentions in his blog post that it’s “early days in our partnership.” But for now things look pretty lopsided.

Uber did not respond immediately to a request for comment.