Chunk of DPI funds put UI's planned data-sciences hub on fast track

Chunk of DPI funds put UI's planned data-sciences hub on fast track

URBANA — A "world class" data-sciences center for the Urbana-Champaign campus, in the works for more than a year, is on a fast track because of state funding allocated to the University of Illinois for the Discovery Partners Institute and its statewide innovation network.

UI officials say part of the $500 million allocated to the UI will be used to build a $40 million to $50 million state-of-the-art research and classroom facility where Illini Hall now stands, in the heart of Campustown. The 111-year-old brick building will be torn down and replaced with a larger, five-story 60,000- to 80,000-square-foot center.

The DPI funding will also be used to expand the UI Research Park, Chancellor Robert Jones said Wednesday, though officials had few details about that effort.

The two projects represent the first investments in Champaign-Urbana from the $500 million state capital appropriation for the planned DPI research institute in Chicago's South Loop and innovation hubs in other university communities, called the Illinois Innovation Network.

Exactly how much of that money will flow to the new data sciences center or the research park hasn't been finalized, officials said.

The campus will also invest $10 million of its own money over the next five years into campus computing infrastructure and $10 million to hire expert faculty in data science fields.

The new center is designed to foster data science education programs and pull together faculty research from units at the heart of the growing "big data" movement — the statistics, math and computer science departments and the No. 1 ranked School of Information Science. Research by those departments is at the core of the innovation network's mission, officials said.

"The digital revolution that has happened all around us today, impacting every aspect of our lives, wouldn't be possible without the ground-breaking discoveries and spectacular firsts that our faculty, staff and students have brought to life," Jones said Wednesday, citing the invention of the semiconductor and the Illiac computer as examples.

Replacing Illini Hall

Illini Hall, at the corner of Wright and John streets near the Quad, is home to classrooms and labs for math and statistics, two fast-growing fields with connections to businesses that could serve the innovation network's mission, officials said.

A renovation of the building has been planned as part of a broader renovation of Altgeld Hall, which also houses students and faculty from those departments — a $90 million project combined.

The UI had sought state capital funding for the project, but it now plans to fund the Altgeld portion with donations and campus money, said Matthew Tomaszewski, associate provost for capital planning.

Illini Hall isn't suited to the requirements of a modern center focusing on statistics, data analysis and machine learning, he said.

Without a specific dollar amount, it's hard to put a timeline on the project, Tomaszewski said.

"We don't know when the dollars are going to be released," he said.

But the hope is to refine the concept for the center this fall, then move ahead with hiring an architect in the spring, which would require trustee approval, he said.

The DPI money is "really critical to this," he said.

The campus still sees the Illini Hall and Altgeld projects as linked, as both house math and statistics, and the hope is the state investment and the profile of DPI will encourage donors to step forward for Altgeld, he said.

Illini Hall was built in 1907 as the home for the University YMCA. In 1919, it became the Illini Union, before the current union opened in 1941. Over the years, it has also housed The Daily Illini, the Police Training Institute and a speech research program, according to the UI Library.

Given the building's age and history on campus, the university has been keeping the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency informed of its plans, Tomaszewski said.

"The idea is to document the history of the building" and any innovations there, he said.

Research focus

Jones said the money for the research park will help expand its infrastructure to allow more startup companies to grow, he said.

He described the park as an "unmatched success," with more than 120 companies such as John Deere and Archer Daniels Midland working with faculty and students, as well as 2,100 employees and 800 student interns. It has also helped launch more than 250 start-up companies from faculty innovations since its inception in 2001.

But "we have been missing opportunities," he said, adding that he will work with the Research Park's board of managers, community leaders, economic development advisers and DPI's leadership to identify opportunities for investment.

As planned, DPI and the Illinois Innovation Network are designed to connect researchers, faculty and students with entrepreneurs and private industry to spur innovation and jobs and address "grand challenges" facing society. It will focus on four areas — computing/big data, health and wellness, food and agriculture, and environment and water.

Each "hub" on the network, associated with universities across the state, will be tailored to the needs of that region.

An overflow crowd packed the Illini Union's South Lounge on Wednesday to hear more specifics from Jones, UI President Tim Killeen and Edward Seidel, vice president for economic development and innovation, who has shepherded the project for almost two years.

They said students and faculty from all UI campuses and its academic partners would spend time at DPI in Chicago, taking classes, working on research, doing internships with private companies, learning how to be entrepreneurs or working with community agencies, officials said.

The initiative is built on four "pillars," or values, including education and workforce development, culture and society, technology commercialization, and public policy.

The project has had strong support from Gov. Bruce Rauner, who recorded a message played at Wednesday's forum. Jones, Killeen and Rauner all called the Urbana campus a central component of both DPI and the innovation network.

It's "one of the best opportunities to really redefine what the land-grant mission of this university must and will look like in the next 50, the next 100, and the next 150-plus years to come," Jones said, ensuring that the UI continues to drive the economic vitality of the state "so no problem is left unsolved."

At a meeting with faculty earlier in the day, Killeen was asked if he was confident the project would still have support if Rauner loses his re-election bid in November.

Without mentioning Democrat J.B. Pritzker by name, Killen said the "other candidate" is also committed to the project. Killeen said enthusiasm for the DPI network has been bipartisan because of its potential to help communities across the state.

"It is a once-in-a-generation chance and opportunity for the university and the state," Seidel said.