Inside Illinois Gies’ Latest Disruption

Robert Brunner will lead the new Disruption Lab at the University of Illinois Gies College of Business. File photo

Here comes another initiative designed for maximum disruption from the business school that brought the world the $22K iMBA.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Gies College of Business announced on Tuesday (January 26) the launch of the Disruption Lab, a partnership with the global audit and consulting giant Ernst & Young that “will provide extracurricular learning opportunities for students, create new entrepreneurial opportunities that connect existing campus resources in new ways, and build and strengthen relationships between the Gies College of Business and its corporate partners,” the school announced. The lab, currently but not permanently a digital-only space, is expected to make a major impact on the direction not only of the school’s iMBA but all programs, and for all students.

Dean Jeff Brown, speaking to reporters via Zoom on Tuesday, said the Disruption Lab is just another step in Illinois Gies remaining a graduate business education pace-setter, one step — or more — ahead of its peers.

“This is an opportunity for us to have a unit dedicated to helping us scan the horizon,” Brown says. “See what exciting new developments are coming. That’s the idea behind it. It’s also very consistent with our vision of being the most innovative business school on the planet — how we can leverage innovations and prepare students and faculty to engage with those ideas.”


Illinois Gies Dean Jeff Brown

There have been fewer more disruptive and innovative developments in graduate business education in the last decade than Illinois Gies’ iMBA, which roared into the market in 2016 and by last fall had enrolled more than 4,000 students, while graduating more than 1,000. Nor are things slowing down for Gies: Applications to the iMBA soared by 75% to 3,272 candidates last fall, the school announced. The boom was helped no doubt by the introduction of a new October cohort. Last fall, Gies only had an August cohort to admit to the program. The online MBA program has gone from zero to some 4,000 students in the program from 2016 to this fall. All that and more are why Poets&Quants named the Gies iMBA the biggest innovation of the last decade in special coverage of our 10-year anniversary last August.

Now comes the next step. The world is particularly disruptive place right now — and only figures to become more so in 2021 and ensuing years. New technology, AI, pandemics, political upheaval, and social justice reform all present challenges for business — but they present opportunities, too, for those who are prepared to handle them. 

The Gies Disruption Lab “will make a significant impact inside and outside the classroom,” the school has announced. “At its core, the lab will be built around student projects, where interdisciplinary teams of students collaborate on a project focused on an emerging technology, such as virtual reality, augmented reality, or blockchain. The students will be able to deeply explore technology innovations of interest to them, while also delivering a viable product or solution that could help businesses successfully navigate disruption.”

Education and training will be integral lab functions — and not just for students, but for interested companies, as well. Through Disruption Lab events, students and corporate partners can participate in technology training sessions on topics such as blockchain, automated machine learning, robotic process automation, and more. Disruption Lab “prepares students for innovations and challenges beyond the horizon,” the school announced, and will make the school more agile by getting new technology into the curriculum quickly, and by being accessible to students from across campus, no matter what industry they are focused on.

The lab shows “that we’re not afraid to get creative in order to serve our students,” says Robert Brunner, associate dean for innovation and chief disruption officer at Gies, who will lead the Disruption Lab.

“It’s about bringing students together from different backgrounds and having them think deeply about something. A lot of room for experimentation and trying new things.”


The Disruption Lab is Brunner’s brainchild.

His own career path is non-traditional,” Dean Brown says. “He is a Ph.D. in astrophysics, came to teach in our Department of Accountancy, and is now our Chief Disruption Officer. He is brilliant about thinking about technology, what’s emerging, and how it’s changing our world. We have seen a growing demand for students and corporate partners to understand these ideas. Robert had the idea of creating a Disruption Lab and working with corporate partners, bringing students from all across campus. A chance for them to explore these technologies and even come up with some of their own.”

Brunner says student projects — experimenting with drones, for example, or working with artificial intelligence, computer algorithms, or any new technology that has the potential to affect business — will be central to the program.

“We will have student groups looking at new technology, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and more,” he says. “Seeing what’s out there. How it can be useful and put to use immediately.

“On the University of Illinois campus, there is a rich set of activities in entrepreneurship, all serving their distinct purpose. The Disruption Lab is meant to fill in at two different places. The first is going back earlier stages and thinking about technologies that are emerging. We may not know what the business application is, but we want to expose students to that idea. Some of them might choose to pursue it as a business, but that’s not necessary. The other part is working with established companies to help them think about how technology can help them deliver a better customer experience. This offers more of a service provision to university and company. It’s not exactly consulting, but more business development and business ideation.”


The bottom line in business is that in today’s world, you’re either part of the disruption or you risk being disrupted, Brunner says.

“Emerging technology, social activism, political instability, and health outbreaks are all changing the way business is being done.,” he says. “The Disruption Lab will allow us to expose our students and corporate partners to these disruptions and teach them how to leverage these factors for future success. We believe the Disruption Lab can be an extremely valuable resource for our students and our business partners. This will allow us to drive innovation by giving students hands-on experience with the technologies of tomorrow. At the same time, we can partner with companies as they strive for future success in this increasingly volatile and complex world.

“The pace of innovation and change has accelerated over time. It feels like every day and every week there are new businesses being launched that fundamentally change the business landscape. Not only does the Disruption Lab expose our students to new technologies, but it also allows them to get their hands dirty and think about what it means for different industries.”

About that corporate partnership. EY, one of the Big 4 professional services firms, is a major employer of Gies graduates, with some 600 of the college’s alumni now working for the multinational company. It is a long-time corporate supporter of Gies and Illinois — but EY is only the first of what Gies Dean Jeff Brown expects to be many business partners to join the Disruption Lab in driving innovation and creating a generation of agile-minded new leaders.

“Both Gies Business and EY are purpose-driven organizations that are committed to student success and developing agile business leaders,” Brown says. “EY’s purpose — to build a better working world — is evident in the importance they place on both recognizing and succeeding through disruption. They are natural collaborators for us in this endeavor, and we look forward to preparing business leaders for success together. Like us, EY is a purpose-driven, innovative organization. We’ll lean on them for advice and expertise. One of the areas they’ve distinguished themselves in is support of entrepreneurship and small business formation. They bring a lot to the table for us.”

“Our goal at EY,” says Kevin Brower, the Illinois Audit Network Leader at EY, “is to build a better working world, but in order to step onto the pathway of progress, we must think outside the box. The Disruption Lab at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business is uniquely designed to incubate innovate ways of thinking and operating that are inclusive, strategic, resilient, and effective.”

The Disruption Lab will publicize calls for student participants in the coming months. If corporations would like to learn how they can get involved, they can email


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