UI exploring multimillion-dollar R&D lab in Chicago

UI exploring multimillion-dollar R&D lab in Chicago

University of Illinois officials are quietly floating the idea of a new multimillion-dollar research and development lab, a grand think tank to be based in Chicago that would involve the city and private industry, The News-Gazette has learned.

Evoking the famed Bell Laboratories, where the telephone company's researchers advanced work in the transistor, laser and UNIX operating system, the UI project has been dubbed "UI Labs: The Future Today." Although university officials are mum on details about the project, earlier this summer lawyers filed a trademark on the name and slogan on behalf of the university.

UI Labs promises to provide, at least initially, computational and informational sciences and engineering research. And the project involves key leaders from the university, state, industry and city of Chicago.

The idea appears to have gained traction in recent months, and weeks even, after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and several leaders in the city's technology start-up community visited the Urbana campus to court its engineering students. Last week as part of ThinkChicago, 100 university students from around the Midwest, including 50 from the UI's Urbana campus, visited Chicago to tour the offices of companies like Groupon, Google and Braintree. The message: Chicago is a place not to pass-through on your way to Silicon Valley or elsewhere, but a place to begin your tech career.

The idea for UI Labs has been percolating for about a year and discussions so far have been largely private. UI Vice President for Research Larry Schook, whose office is handling the planning, declined to discuss specifics. Urbana faculty plan to invite him to a meeting of the academic senate next month to learn more about UI Labs, particularly since it involves the possibility of industry partnerships.

In recent weeks some faculty have expressed concerns about the campus signing an agreement with Coursera, a for-profit company that provides massive, open online courses to people around the world, before a full senate discussion about the partnership took place.

UI Labs would not be a fourth campus, but a separate entity (location to be determined) where researchers could design computer hardware and software, study public policy or tackle big problems.

The idea, to create an entity that would be private yet affiliated with the university (similar to the UI Foundation, which raises money for the university) is "still subject to discussion," UI President Bob Easter told The News-Gazette on Monday.

One entity on which this new center could be modeled is the university's Singapore research center, Easter said. In 2008, the UI established a limited liability corporation to manage UI research and academic operations there. The UI offers a joint UI-Singapore Ph.D. program and the Singapore government funds millions in research into digital sciences and other topics there.

Unlike the Beckman Institute, the multidisciplinary research center on the Urbana campus built with money from chemist Arnold Beckman, UI Labs is envisioned to be a separate entity involving researchers from not only the Urbana campus, but Chicago as well.

UI Labs would ultimately break down any barriers between UI campuses, said Don Chambers, a UI Chicago professor who sits on a committee advising the UI's office for the vice president for research.

Chambers said early response to the idea has been positive, and in his view, it's been a long time coming.

Some synergies between the campuses already exist, he said. For example, UIC's College of Medicine has locations in Peoria and Rockford and Urbana's College of Business has an executive MBA program offered in Chicago.

"But we have not explored synergisms to the extent we should," Chambers said. The challenge and opportunity will be how the campuses explore those "synergisms" without losing identity and control, Chambers said.

If resources are shifted away from the campus, the UI could lose out, according to Peter Fox, developer of the UI Research Park in Champaign, which is home to UI-related tech startups as well as satellite offices for international corporations such as Abbott Laboratories.

"We need to recognize Urbana is in a competitive race with other campuses. If resources are shifted to Chicago, we'd become less competitive," Fox said.

In an environment where resources are limited — the UI's direct state appropriation is now at the same level as 1997 in nominal dollars, and when adjusted to inflation below 1966 — and the funding outlook for federal research dollars is not clear, one promise that has to be made is that UI Labs would not drain resources from the campuses, said Nicholas Burbules, UI professor and chair of the University Senates Conference, a group of faculty leaders from all three campuses.

Plus, the entity should not compete with the campuses for talent, he said.

Although a specific plan has not been shared with faculty yet, Burbules said the concept could involve bringing different research teams together where people would be working on big problems that couldn't have been done on a smaller scale.

"It would not compete with the campuses, but be a net addition to the campuses," he said.

Industry involvement, or what Don Chambers called "industrial academic liaisons," would be key to the new entity.

However, treading into that territory can be tricky. Chambers, a professor in the UIC Department of Physiology and Biophysics, said he has for years worked successfully on industry-funded research projects.

"The issue has always ultimately been control and receipt of the benefits," he said. "Once you do partnership through industry, you have to carefully define those partnerships ... to spell out what's in it for both, and you have to do this early to avoid potential conflicts," Chambers said.

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Bulldogmojo wrote on October 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

Once again the University demonstrates it has plenty of money to put up buildings it can't afford to put employees in.

Has anyone at this University even read the Bayh Dole act?

birdfarmer wrote on October 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

... plenty of money and a 1950's mentality.  Bell Labs "worked" only because it was funded by a monopoly and had Western Electric as a captive-buying audience with a 30-year equipment-life design cycle.  Even the Beckman Institute, the NCSA and the IGB on this campus are dated concepts, with huge static overhead in a world where new product viability is measured in months and flash-mob development teams are the wave of the future.  UI Labs will attract tenured faculty as high-paid administrators who know that they can quietly return to teaching after the lab looses its newness, just like Singapore and Global Campus.

svirpridon wrote on October 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm

And yet without Bell Labs, none of those flash mob startups would exist. No UNIX, no BSD or Linux or C, a smaller (or non-existent) open source movement.

Funny, that.

Heck, no smartphone as we know it would exist. No android, no iOS. I guess the windows phones still could.

vcponsardin wrote on October 16, 2012 at 5:10 pm

And once again, no money for the arts and humanities--as the upper administration attempts to turn the U of I into the "MIT of the Midwest."  (Yeah, I've heard all the money arguments many times over--"when arts and humanities bring in millions in research grants, blah, blah, blah...)  Can you imagine a world full of nothing but of illiterate scientists?  Can you imagine your life without music blaring on your iPod?  What would all those tech devises play without the arts, without musicians?  What would all those scientists do without cable TV shows to watch every night -- shows brought to you by actors, writers, and other artists?)  Sure, let's dump the arts in favor of yet another tech lab...  Whoopie...

C. Alcyon wrote on October 17, 2012 at 1:10 am

Can you imagine a world full of nothing but of illiterate scientists? 

Actually, no, I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around such an absurd notion.  All the scientists I know are highly literate.

What would all those scientists do without cable TV shows to watch every night -- shows brought to you by actors, writers, and other artists?)

They'd probably get more science done because they wouldn't be distracted by cable TV.  

Sure, let's dump the arts in favor of yet another tech lab...  Whoopie...

I don't think anyone is "dumping the arts" here.  For one thing, the proposed UI Labs would be private, an industrial-academic partnership.  It sounds as though right now no state money would be used.  However, the research center could help make the university more prestigious, resulting in more revenue and higher enrollments, and, as a result, perhaps making more funding available for the fine arts.

asparagus wrote on October 19, 2012 at 11:10 am

The point that was being made was that you don't learn how to read and read critically from scientists.

If the VP of Research at UIUC is involved in the planning of this effort then public funds are already being spent on it, and you can bet that more will be spent in the future.

alabaster jones 71 wrote on October 21, 2012 at 12:10 am
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How many artists...musicians, TV stars, actors and actresses, what have you...got where they are because they went to a university and learned the skills of their profession there?  I would guess not very many of them.

I don't necessarily disagree with your premise.  Obviously liberal arts should have a place at the u of I.  I can't blame them for putting most of their money into departments that are more likely to bring money back, though.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

alabaster;  You hit on a point that involves the "student debt crisis".  Whenever I see, or hear stories regarding the rapid increase in student debt; I wonder what the student majored in.  The last presidential debate had a young person mention their student debt.  I wondered about the major they chose.  The national student debt will have to be addressed in the future.  It may involve some type of government assistance.  The two candidates differ in that the President wants the middle man, the banks, cut out of the loans.  The government backs the loans anyway so why have a middle man that increases the cost.  All of that sounds good.  However, should the government back student loans for dance, art, or drama majors? What are the job prospects for those majors versus engineering, computer science, finance, micro-biology, and others?  It seems to me that if the country is to improve in economic competition with other nations such as China, and Germany, the country needs to invest in majors that lead to needed employment.

I agree with you regarding the money being put into the departments leading to employment. 

alabaster jones 71 wrote on October 21, 2012 at 7:10 pm
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Excellent points all around, Sid.


My personal opinion is that college is going to be the next big bubble to crash, and that there is going to have to be some fundamental restructuring of our approach to higher education.  Perhaps cutting out some of those fluffier majors will have to be part of that restructuring.  I think that arts are extremely important to any society, but I'm not too sure that universities are the best place to cultivate artists.

CharacterCounts wrote on October 16, 2012 at 11:10 pm

It appears more money will be taken from Urbana-Champaign campus and moved to Chicago.  What is the date that top administrators will close their Urbana-Champaign offices and only have their offices in Chicago.  How much will the president's mansion bring since it will no longer be needed when Urbana-Champaign is just a satilite campus.

Writing is on the wall with many of the trustee's being from Chicago area.  Downstate better prepare for a smaller and lower internationally rated Urbana-Champaign campus.

I thought the current president had the will and desire to preserve the Urbana-Champaign campus, but this is now in question.  Hopefully he will step forth and bring this lab to the Urbana-Champaign campus where it belongs.

asparagus wrote on October 19, 2012 at 11:10 am

I'm confused. Is UI Labs short for UIUC/UIC/UIS Labs? I thought the whole point of the Research Park and Enterprise Works was to accomplish exactly what this proposal aims to build?  Why are we backing off an initiative that is already well underway?  Why are we diverting resources away from our own backyard?  Why are we planning to build a mini-mall in the research park instead of this lab?

Chicago already has a huge wealth of high powered research organizations -- public and private. Why should this campus, located in east central Illinois be adding to those instead of further enriching the area in which it is located?  

Is the pull of Chicago political interests really that strong?

Lostinspace wrote on October 19, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Asparagus and CharacterCounts:

Exactly.  Things have been heading this way for some time.  I would like Prof. Wise to let us in on long-term planning (in the interests of transparence...).