Virginia Tech’s growing impact in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area will receive a significant boost thanks to a multimillion-dollar gift from Octo founder and CEO Mehul Sanghani ’98 and his wife, Hema Sanghani ’99.

The couple’s $10 million gift primarily supports the newly renamed Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics, which will be headquartered in the first academic building at the university’s Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia. A majority of the gift is endowed to support recruiting, research, and fellowships at the center, which has operated since 2011 and was formerly known as the Discovery Analytics Center. Funding will also be allocated toward a Sanghani Center scholars program which will afford scholarship opportunities to underrepresented minorities to pursue graduate degrees with a focus on artificial intelligence.

“We thank the Sanghanis for their landmark contribution,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “This gift fuels growing momentum as we expand the university’s footprint in the greater D.C. area and explore the human-computing frontier. The Sanghanis’ investments in data analytics and artificial intelligence will advance Virginia Tech as a catalyst for discovery, growth, and opportunity.”

The gift comes as Virginia Tech continues to build momentum for its $1 billion Innovation Campus, which played a key role in the commonwealth’s successful effort to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to Virginia. The campus will be located in the Alexandria portion of National Landing near Potomac Yard, about two miles from Amazon's new location in Arlington, Virginia.

“Higher Education is the perfect vehicle for a gift like this,” said Mehul Sanghani, who earned degrees from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and College of Science and founded Octo, a company that provides emerging technology and IT modernization services — including artificial intelligence — for the federal government. “With Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus coming online, we were presented with the unique opportunity to be part of growing our university’s standing as a world class institution that uses innovation — specifically artificial intelligence and data analytics — to transform our society for the greater good.”

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The Sanghani Center is the first research group identified to move its headquarters into the Innovation Campus.

Construction of the campus’ first academic building is on track to start in 2021, with the building expected to open in August 2024. By the end of the decade, the university expects to have up to 750 master’s degree students enrolled at the campus, along with hundreds more doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. The campus will anchor a 65-acre innovation district and is a major component of Virginia’s Tech Talent Investment program goal to prepare about 31,000 computer science graduates over the 20 years to fill a critical workforce need.

“This is a transformative gift that opens up new possibilities at a pivotal time,” said Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus. “Support from alumni like Mehul and Hema broadens the scope of what we can accomplish. As we build this campus, having partners like the Sanghanis makes a major difference, and we are extremely grateful.”

The Sanghani Center epitomizes Virginia Tech’s growing emphasis on data science, which has coincided with the increasing impact of that field over the past decade. From just four faculty nearly a decade ago, the center has organically grown to have 20 faculty and over 120 graduate students. While headquartered in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, the center also has faculty and students based at Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg, Virginia, campus and is part of the Department of Computer Science in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. The center has been supported by Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, known as ICTAS.

Artist rendering of Innovation Campus building
The Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics, which will be headquartered in the first academic building at the university’s Innovation Campus in Alexandria, is shown in an architectural rendering.

“Mehul and Hema Sanghani are investing in Virginia Tech’s future, but more importantly in a better world,” said Julia Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “This gift will help attract talented new students and faculty to the emerging Innovation Campus, and their work will help shape the future of how humanity engages with artificial intelligence and data analytics.”

The center is directed by Naren Ramakrishnan, who is the Thomas L. Phillips Professor of Engineering in the Department of Computer Science.

“As the Innovation Campus launches, the Sanghanis’ gift will enable us to be more ambitious in our research and education objectives,” Ramakrishnan said. “These funds will be used to create endowments to support the recruitment of top-notch academic and research faculty, launch new educational programs, pursue high-risk seed projects, and recruit promising Ph.D. students.”

People sit around a conference table in a picture taken in early 2020.
Students and faculty in January 2020 at what is now the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics. Photo by Erin Williams for Virginia Tech.

Sanghani Center faculty and students leverage their expertise in data science and artificial intelligence on projects to help decision-making in a wide range of contexts, including public health, urban systems, defense, business, and environmental conservation.

“Automation ushered in by data analytics, machine learning, and AI is continuing to permeate many businesses and scientific processes,” Ramakrishnan said. “While some fear that human workers will get automated out of the workforce, the growing consensus is that AI and humans can leverage complementary strengths and effectively augment each other. Looking forward, people and organizations that understand how AI fits within workflows and how people can work collaboratively with algorithms will be more competitive than those that are unable to do so. In the Sanghani Center, we study not just the algorithmic aspects of converting data to knowledge and of automated decision-making, but also human-AI collaboration and teaming, and the ethical and social aspects of AI.”

Portions of the Sanghanis’ gift benefit other Virginia Tech initiatives. Of the $10 million, $7.4 million supports the center and $1.5 million helps the university run an innovative program to enhance food access for students. The rest of the gift supports Virginia Tech Athletics and the Global Business and Analytics Complex that is planned for the Blacksburg campus.

The Sanghanis are the youngest alumni couple to have ever made a gift of such magnitude to Virginia Tech, and it comes as the university is engaged in a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign.

Mehul Sanghani. Photo courtesy of Mehul and Hema Sanghani.
Mehul Sanghani. Photo courtesy of Mehul and Hema Sanghani.

“Mehul and Hema set an extraordinary example,” said Charlie Phlegar, the university’s vice president for advancement. “Our university has a bold vision of how to make a greater impact on the world. But to get there, we need alumni and friends to step forward in support of that vision. Mehul and Hema have done that in a powerful and inspiring way.”

The Sanghanis live in Vienna, Virginia. Mehul Sanghani grew up in Blacksburg, site of Virginia Tech’s largest campus, and is a member of the university’s Board of Visitors. Hema Sanghani grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, a less than two-hour drive from where she would earn her degree from the Pamplin College of Business.

“Virginia Tech is where we both met and it opened the doors of opportunity to both Mehul and myself,” said Hema Sanghani, who is a manager at CGI federal, which provides information technology services to U.S. federal agencies. “We believe we have a responsibility to give back to the school that has afforded us so much, and that investing in higher-education will have a return that not only supports our university, but also helps the greater good.”

— Written by Albert Raboteau.