In a rare appearance at a University of Illinois board meeting, Gov. Pat Quinn visited with trustees Thursday afternoon to voice support for a major new university-led institute called UI Labs.
The multimillion-dollar research and development lab envisioned for Chicago will be a private, not-for-profit entity separate from the university, but closely affiliated with it. UI, state and city of Chicago officials have been discussing the idea since last year, and faculty governance groups have been briefed on preliminary plans. Thursday marked the first time trustees heard about the initiative as a group in public.
Evoking the famed Bell Laboratories, where the telephone company's researchers advanced work in the transistor, laser and UNIX operating system, UI Labs aims to build upon the UI's strengths in computational and informational sciences. It promises to offer a new approach to "translational research" to help address society's biggest challenges, said UI Vice President for Research Larry Schook, the UI's officer heading up the effort.
The institute would employ up to 1,000 researchers, graduate students and other staff working in teams focused on different themes, such as advanced manufacturing and biotechnology.
One area Quinn urged UI Labs to focus on is sustainability, including energy efficiency, water conservation, renewable energy, and "feeding and fueling and healing the world," he said, referring to the slogan of BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Startup costs are estimated at $20 million, and Schook said the goal is for the institute to build a $100 million research portfolio within a few years of being established. Private fundraising efforts are now expected to get under way; venture capitalists, private industry leaders and philanthropists will all be approached for support.
Afterward, Quinn didn't commit to state financial support for UI Labs, saying it will depend on "how it develops" and specific areas of research.
"The concept really involves a lot of private investment and federal government research grants," he said.
"We would make that decision based on the project," Quinn said.
Though some fear UI Labs might drain talent and resources away from downstate, Quinn said, "I'm very anxious that it not do that."
"We want to keep building on the research park there, and the Illinois Medical District here. This is another approach," he said, using mostly private investment and federal grants.
"It's not all about Chicago," Schook said. With a nod to the UI's land-grant mission and long history of teaching farmers, manufacturers and others, UI Labs will be "a place where people all over the state can come exchange ideas, learn new techniques and go back to their communities," he said.
Added Quinn: "The idea is to have an urban center in Chicago that all three campuses can connect to. This will facilitate the transfer of ideas and research and make it useful for the world."
Quinn is an ex officio member of the UI Board of Trustees.