Lawmakers seek more info on Discovery Partners Institute; forums set for faculty

Lawmakers seek more info on Discovery Partners Institute; forums set for faculty

URBANA — Legislators are demanding more details about a Chicago-based Illinois Innovation Network led by the University of Illinois, summoning UI President Tim Killeen to a hearing in Springfield later this month to discuss the project.

The UI has also scheduled forums on its three campuses Aug. 28-30 to brief faculty on the initiative, which is anchored by the proposed Discovery Partners Institute in the South Loop area of downtown Chicago and slated for $500 million in state funding this year.

The UI forums were announced Aug. 1, a day after Killeen and other UI officials were asked to attend a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing about the project on Aug. 28.

"It's not lost on me that unfortunately, the Senate Higher Education Committee had to force the issue by scheduling a hearing to bring him in and shed some light on this," said state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.

Rose had written to Killeen in late June, urging him to talk to the community about the project and "put some meat on the bone and let Champaign-Urbana know, publicly, exactly what is in this for East Central Illinois."

As planned, the institute and the Illinois Innovation Network are designed to connect researchers, faculty and students with entrepreneurs and private industry to spur innovation, focusing on computer science, health care, and food and agriculture. UI officials envision a system of research centers across the state, anchored by the DPI in Chicago and tailored to meet the needs of individual regions.

But with Gov. Bruce Rauner and others talking about the need to make Chicago a new tech hub, local leaders worry the project might drain talent and money from the Urbana campus.

Killeen said the forums weren't scheduled "in response to any crisis. As the plans evolve, we want to make sure our faculty in particular, but also the external communities, are kept apprised of where we are."

"We're sort of taking this year to develop the blueprint for the IIN and the DPI," Killeen said. "A lot of work is underway. We want to fully engage the faculty. They have lots of questions. There aren't comprehensively fulsome answers yet, but we're making a lot of progress and we want to make sure the faculty are apprised of that."

Killeen again declined to say how much of the $500 million will be dedicated to the Urbana campus or other "hubs" on the innovation network, but said it would be "very significant."

"Urbana-Champaign is going to be a major intellectual driver of the whole statewide network, and we all know that," he said. "It's one of the main reasons we were able to be successful in our proposals and our thinking and our ideation about the whole structure."

Killeen said the forums will include details of "more concrete things that are planned for each of our hubs," declining to offer any specifics until then. That won't necessarily be what kinds of buildings are planned, but instead, "emphasis areas" for the Urbana, Chicago and Springfield campuses, which will not be surprising given the strengths of those universities, he said.

"Of course, there will be additional announcements later on for other hubs around the state," he said. "I don't want to steal anybody's thunder."

'Staffing up significantly'

Since the initiatives were announced, Killeen said, the UI-led project has opened an office on Wacker Drive in Chicago and secured its first corporate partner, Peoria-based OSF HealthCare, and its first international academic partner, Tel Aviv University. The University of Chicago and Northwestern are also partners.

OSF is sponsoring an interdisciplinary course through DPI to improve health care delivery across the state. And DPI hosted workshops in Chicago this summer connecting Israeli and American entrepreneurs.

The UI has not said how the $500 million will be spent, though a big chunk will likely go toward construction of the institute on a 64-acre tract just south of downtown Chicago, a "live work play" development known as "The 78th."

The developer, Related Midwest, presented its plans publicly in May and is now meeting with neighborhood groups and other constituents before seeking formal approval from Chicago's plan commission.

The UI announced in June that it would contribute $6 million over four years to help start the project. Killeen said the UI's contribution comes from central administration — institutional funding that is set aside for "strategic priorities" — and does not include any state funding.

That money will go toward operating expenses, primarily staffing, and the operating budget will grow as the project ramps up, funded by a mix of university and private funding, Killeen said.

"We will be staffing up significantly from where we are, now that we have a physical location and we have funding," he said. "We're looking at a steady state that's going to be significantly bigger than (the $6 million) by a factor of two to four," though that includes staff in Champaign-Urbana, he said.

More plans coming soon

Killeen said a hiring announcement for DPI will also be made soon. Other UI staff members are already working on the project under the direction of Edward Seidel, vice president for economic development and innovation, he said.

When DPI was announced, officials said much of the funding for the $1.2 billion project would come from private sources. Rauner and others have said the $500 million in state funding will be matched "multiple times over" from the private sector, entrepreneurs and businesses.

A full implementation plan will be ready later this year, including a construction timetable, possibly as early as next month, UI officials said.

"I think all of us really believe that this is going to be a magnificent opportunity for Urbana-Champaign to exercise leadership, to participate, to have major intellectual components of a transformative innovation ecosystem that is distributed, and that there will be concrete, significant investments in our community — the Urbana-Champaign community as well as other places," Killeen said.

Save the dates

The UI is planning three forums on the proposed Discovery Partners Institute/Illinois Innovation Network:

— Springfield: 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., Aug. 28, Student Union Ballroom.

— Urbana: 3:30 to 5 p.m., Aug. 29, south lounge of Illini Union.

— Chicago: 3:30 to 5 p.m., Aug. 30, Student Center East.