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.