UI Labs aims to claim huge federal grant

Recipient becomes home to digital manufacturing and design innovation institute

URBANA — A few months into its launch, an upstart institute born out of the University of Illinois is leading the effort to land a major federal grant that could help put the state at the forefront of advanced manufacturing.

UI Labs, a nonprofit research and development organization backed by university, state and city of Chicago officials, is expected to submit a proposal to the federal government on why Illinois should become home to a digital manufacturing and design innovation institute.

As part of President Barack Obama's "We Can't Wait" initiative, the administration unveiled plans in 2012 for a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The vision is for up to 15 different institutes around the country to drive innovation in manufacturing. Youngstown, Ohio, was chosen last year to be the first hub.

In May of this year, the administration announced competitions for three new institutes: next generation power electronics; lightweight and modern metals manufacturing; and digital manufacturing and design innovation.

The digital manufacturing project, led by the Department of Defense, will focus on building digitally-integrated tools that are networked with supply chains, developing "virtual manufacturing tools and sensor- and robotics-based manufacturing networks" all with the goal of accelerating innovation and increasing U.S. competitiveness, according to the announcement.

The aim, said UI Vice President for Research Larry Schook and member of the UI Labs board of directors, is to address the entire supply chain and reduce the cost and time it takes to bring products to market.

UI Labs officials and a growing group of educational and industry supporters convened earlier this week in Washington, D.C., following what is called a "proposers' day," when those interested in submitting proposals can ask questions and learn more about the project from the agency.

In addition to UI Labs and the UI, the team represents institutions from across the heartland, Schook said. The educational component so far includes Northwestern University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Indiana University, Northern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, the University of Wisconsin and many others.

Representatives also have been talking to the heads of many companies, including small, medium and large manufacturers. Schook declined to name at this time any companies that have agreed to be part of the UI Labs-led proposal.

However, Schook did say, "I'm really excited. ... We have some awesome companies on our list."

A critical component of the proposal is obtaining industry and nongovernment financial support. The federal government will award $70 million, but groups submitting proposals must raise the same amount from industry. The support from industry can include cash, equipment, and in-kind support, according to Schook.

The UI has vied for and won big federal grants before — the National Science Foundation awarded the UI an initial $208 million for the Blue Waters supercomputer — but joining together numerous partners from across the region to compete for this new manufacturing hub has put the UI and its new affiliated nonprofit, UI Labs, in new territory.

"There's the complexity of bringing industry, government and universities — it's just a new world order," Schook said.

Jeff Margolis, managing director of Illinois Science & Technology Coalition, said there has been a "strong interest" throughout the state in the initiative. The coalition's members include Abbott Laboratories, Google and Motorola as well as educational institutions, tech and supporting organizations.

The coalition's role, he said, is to support and build the community as well as support the proposal, such as the workforce development aspects that call for training students in cutting-edge technology so manufacturers can adopt the technology and build faster, better and cheaper products, ultimately strengthening their competitiveness.

Given the 20,000-odd manufacturers in the state, the coalition is interested in "upping the game, retooling the manufacturing base to restore jobs that have been lost and make Illinois a go-to state in terms of manufacturing," Margolis said.

In the meantime, UI Labs officials next week will visit potential sites for their new offices in Chicago. A fiscal agreement between UI Labs and the UI Foundation, the University of Illinois' private fundraising arm, has been drawn up.

Incorporation papers were filed in the spring, but the entity's affiliation agreements with the campuses are still being drafted. The formal document outlining the relationships between the 501(c)3 and the campuses has not been finalized yet. Schook is expected to brief members of the UI Board of Trustees later this month.

"This grant has consumed all our time and energy," Schook said.

UI Labs is envisioned to be a place where scientists from the UI and other universities partner with corporations in computational, information sciences and engineering research.

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