Tech center in heart of Chicago taking shape

Tech center in heart of Chicago taking shape

CHICAGO — The announcement was big and bold: a $1.2 billion investment in the heart of Chicago to create a cutting-edge research institute led by the University of Illinois that will anchor a new "innovation network" across the state.

Four months later came another big number: a $500 million pledge of state funding for the Discovery Partners Institute and the Illinois Innovation Network, from Gov. Bruce Rauner, the project's biggest backer.

For the governor and UI leaders, the public-private partnership offers the campus a long-desired foothold in Chicago, bringing students and faculty closer to industry partners and venture capitalists now two hours away.

The abrupt October announcement, however, was news to many in Urbana and sparked worries about a "fourth campus" pulling resources away from the UI flagship downstate.

Likewise, faculty members at the UI Chicago — just blocks from the proposed site off Roosevelt Road — wondered about their role in DPI.

Legislators and others were puzzled by talk of "nodes" on the innovation network, in Urbana, Peoria, Carbondale and other university communities.

"Nobody knew what the word 'node' meant," said Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, who attended an early presentation after the announcement last fall. "Other nodes weren't even contacted until they read about it in the paper."

Since then, UI President Tim Killeen and Edward Seidel, UI vice president for economic development and innovation and interim director of DPI, have been making the rounds explaining the initiative to faculty members, legislators and city officials. They've assured them it's not a new UI campus, but an innovation center that can benefit the existing three. And the nodes are now referred to as innovation "hubs."

"This could be a really fantastic opportunity for the institution," said UI engineering Professor Harley Johnson, a member of the University Senates Conference, a faculty group that advises Killeen.

But he added, "I think we're all anxious for more details."

Seidel said the anxiety developed "because of the way this played out." The initiative, proposed by the UI and backed by the governor, was kept quiet for months at Rauner's request while he worked on budget negotiations and rounded up donor support, according to Seidel and the governor.

But DPI became linked with a huge development in downtown Chicago, just south of the Loop, that was one of the city's proposed sites for the new Amazon headquarters. Those sites were made public last fall, so the UI project was announced as well.

Seidel said he's talked with "hundreds of people" about the project and it's been well-received. He hasn't heard any serious concerns about the initiative hurting the UI, adding, "they see it as a win."


What is it?

Planners describe a premier research institute pulling together expertise from the UI, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and future educational partners from the U.S. and overseas. The goal is to have industries, top faculty and students working side-by-side on research in three areas — data sciences, health care, and food and agriculture — creating jobs, attracting investors and keeping talent in-state: a new Silicon Valley in Chicago.

All students would be trained in entrepreneurship — how to turn their discoveries into a viable company.

"You would have students there at DPI all the time," Seidel said. "You would have faculty who are teaching classes but working in teams with companies."

As currently proposed, DPI would be the centerpiece of Related Midwest's 62-acre development along the Chicago River.

It would also be the "mother ship" of the Illinois Innovation Network, which would link sites around the state where students and faculty would partner with businesses on research and education initiatives determined by local needs — say, a joint project with school districts to train middle school students in data science, or incubators to help startup agriculture or tech businesses grow, or health initiatives, or online training to help workers meet changing job needs.

Those schools will also likely send students to DPI in Chicago, he said.

Seidel has just started talking with other Illinois universities about the network, including Southern Illinois-Carbondale, Northern Illinois and Bradley. SIU spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said the school has had only preliminary conversations about the project. Illinois State University President Larry Dietz talked with Killeen to express interest but hasn't heard many details, said spokesman Eric Jome.

Meanwhile, Rauner and UI officials have been courting international partners, including universities in Mexico, China and, in particular, Israel, which already works with other U.S. tech hubs and has shown strong interest, Seidel said.


Who would pay?

From the start, officials said the initiative would be funded with a mix of state money, private philanthropy, and corporate and commercial investments.

No donors have been announced; Killeen and Seidel said they expect to have news sometime this year.

Rauner pledged $500 million in state funding during his budget address last month, with the money to come from bonds issued under the Build Illinois program. It would pay for the DPI building in Chicago — more than 1 million square feet for students, professors and companies that locate there — and other still-to-be determined investments around the state, Seidel said.

The state money will also be used to leverage private investments from philanthropists, corporations and others to reach the $1.2 billion target.

"I don't want to wait," Rauner told The News-Gazette just before his budget address. "It should be donors leading the way, but the state should be participating significantly to invest in the U of I."

Despite the state's financial troubles, Seidel said the UI is hopeful that the $500 million will win legislative approval. The DPI initiative seems to resonate with Democrats and Republicans alike, in part because it has benefits statewide, not just in Chicago, he said.

"I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if the Democratic mayor of Chicago and the Republican governor in the state of Illinois are in agreement about something, that's probably a pretty good start," Rose said.

Rose said the proposal is "very intriguing in terms of strengthening the entire state of Illinois from top to bottom, literally," and he hopes a "big chunk" of the money could come back to the Urbana campus.

While he thinks the jury is still out, "I have had people that I respect immensely on the Urbana campus tell me that this is a good thing for Urbana," he said. His biggest concern is that it not compete with other promising initiatives, such as UI's new bioprocessing lab or the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

Seidel said deans "are a little bit nervous" about competing for donor dollars with DPI, but "it's not a zero-sum game. There are people who find this very exciting who've never given to the university. It'll open up new avenues of fundraising."

When DPI was announced, Seidel said the university would not be "taking money from its budget to build this thing." But in January, UI trustees urged Killeen and Seidel to move ahead with the project even if it required university money.

Seidel said it's too early to say exactly how much will come from the UI, the developer or donors.

"We're looking at different kinds of operating models," he said. "The primary directive is to do no harm to the existing universities."


Academic questions

Faculty members have also asked how the new DPI will blend academically with the UI campuses.

"This is not a new campus. We all understand that," Johnson said. "I think we want to make sure that this serves everyone in the institution, across all three universities. We want to make sure that the students stand to benefit. How do we make sure there are real academic programs that benefit students?"

The DPI's sheer size and unique structure, with students and faculty from different campuses on one new site, prompted natural questions, faculty said.

"It's a totally new paradigm. They've invited at least two other institutions; they're reaching out internationally," said UI Chicago Professor Meena Rao, chair of the Senates Conference.

It's a tremendous opportunity for students, she said, but there are questions about faculty governance, academic standards and requirements. Who will hire faculty? Where will students get their degrees? How will the DPI experience fit into students' academic programs?

Rao said faculty from all three UI campuses also want to ensure DPI doesn't siphon money and talent from their universities, as "resources are tight," she said.


UI Labs

Rao and others also point to the UI Labs project launched with similar fanfare in 2013. Also backed by Rauner — then a venture capitalist — the Bell Labs-style institute in Chicago was to include hundreds of graduate students and faculty members partnering with other universities on high-tech research that would attract venture capital and Fortune 1000 firms to the state.

But it took on many other partners and shifted its focus to manufacturing, with a $70 million federal grant for the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute. The name "UI Labs" no longer refers to the University of Illinois but "Universities and Industry Labs."

Seidel assured students and faculty at a recent Senate Executive Committee meeting that the UI would "stay at the helm" this time, to maintain control of DPI's academic mission and keep a strong focus on students and faculty. The governing board will be led by the UI president, he said, though the remaining structure hasn't been decided.

"We've said from the get-go that this is a University of Illinois initiative, led by the University of Illinois," said UI spokesman Tom Hardy.


No 'brain drain'

DPI won't grant degrees itself or hire faculty; professors there will hold appointments at one of the participating universities — though how they'd be paid hasn't been hammered out, Seidel said. The institute will probably hire permanent staff to manage residence halls, relationships with companies and other operations, Seidel said.

The UI will recruit new faculty researchers for DPI, but Seidel expects existing faculty to work there as well, some rotating in and out.

Students will take courses at DPI and get practical experience with companies through internships and other opportunities, he said. But their degrees will come from their home universities.

"It's always going to be a small operation compared to what's going on in Urbana," he said.

Not all 2,000 students will come from Urbana, and even if they did it would be a fraction of the student body, he said.

"There's not going to be a brain drain from Urbana to Chicago," he said.

A university-level steering committee is guiding the project, led by Seidel and including the other two UI vice presidents. But the academic program is being developed by an executive committee of faculty and deans from all three UI campuses, he noted.

"We're thinking a lot about how to create a truly integrated activity, not just something that's up in Chicago," Seidel said.

Technology could help. One idea is for a virtual classroom, where students and faculty in Urbana and Chicago could be connected remotely, like video-conferencing but with an entire wall of pixels, so "it looks to you that the entire wall is an extension into that other classroom," he said.

The university is also taking an inventory of existing programs that DPI might build on, Seidel said. The UI Chicago's Innovation Center, for example, brings together students from engineering, science, business and art and design to work with car companies to "envision the future for the automotive industry," such as the impact of driverless cars.

"That's kind of the philosophy of what the DPI would do at a big scale," Seidel said.


'Potential is huge'

Seidel and others downplay concerns about Urbana losing prized faculty to DPI. Some Urbana departments already have faculty who live in Chicago and commute to campus several times a week.

On the plus side, Seidel said, having hundreds of students at DPI, supported by donors and industry, offers a way to expand the top-ranked College of Engineering, he said. It could attract new faculty members who like the idea of living in a major urban center, at least temporarily, or have a spouse who wants to work there, he said.

"We are a premier research university that happens to be 150 miles away from a large metropolitan area. We compete for talent, both students and faculty, with universities that are in large metropolitan areas," said UI electrical engineering Professor Andy Singer, who has directed the Urbana campus Technology and Entrepreneurship Center for 12 years.

To the extent that DPI can improve opportunities for internships, research collaborations and partnerships with companies in Chicago, "that's a win for us," he said.

The College of Engineering launched a City Scholars program this year, offering juniors and seniors the chance to study in Chicago while holding a part-time internship. Participating companies, some of whom also have a presence in the UI Research Park in Champaign, want to help the campus expand the state's talent pool and give students an incentive to stay in Illinois after they graduate, rather than going to Boston or Austin or Silicon Valley, Singer said.

Singer and Urbana Provost Andreas Cangellaris said DPI could also help keep young companies that outgrow the UI Research Park from leaving the state for venture capital and customers on the east or west coasts, heading to Chicago instead.

And it could work hand-in-hand with the research park in Champaign, Seidel said. In food and agriculture, for example, DPI could focus on the business aspects — transportation and commodities trading — taking advantage of the Chicago Board of Trade and major food companies such as Kraft, while the research park continues its strong ag-tech program and direct links to crop researchers, farmers and processing companies, said Director Laura Frerichs.

Most Urbana faculty agree that the campus could benefit from better engagement in the city of Chicago, Johnson said.

"I think the potential is huge," he said. "Chicago is obviously a much bigger industry center than we have downstate. Faculty are starting to think about ways they can get engaged."

Beyond engineering, Cangellaris said Chicago is an important test bed for researchers who look at societal challenges such as access to health care, food security and social justice. Social scientists, educators and others will be able to address challenges in a way they haven't before, he said.

"I think that DPI is going to be a big boost for everything we are doing in Urbana-Champaign, not only the university but also the community," he said.

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CecilColeman wrote on March 05, 2018 at 1:03 pm

I can't believe that they ain't gonna put it in Rantoul or Fisher or Tolono.....

juandez wrote on March 05, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Why does the News-Gazette insist on calling UIC "UI Chicago?"

The University of Illinois System does not call it that. 

Similar with "UI Springfield"

This term only exists within the News-Gazette.

Both UIC and UIS have names that are well known throughout the state.


Niko Dugan wrote on March 05, 2018 at 5:03 pm
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Thanks for your comment.

This is The News-Gazette's house style for those two campuses. Similarly, it is The N-G's style to refer to the main campus on second reference as "the UI," not "the U. of I.," as does the Chicago Tribune, or "UIUC," as do several other entities, including the school itself.

As well-known as the terms "UIC" and "UIS" may be, "UI Chicago" and "UI Springfield" are less ambiguous. In general, we try to avoid acronyms/initialisms, as they can too easily create confusion.


Niko Dugan
online editor