The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Behind U Of I 's Grand Plan To Lure Students To South Loop, Not Silicon Valley

By Emma G. Gallegos in News on Oct 20, 2017 4:10PM

A rendering of the Discovery Partners Institute (The Related Companies)

A project aimed at putting Illinois on the map in the tech world was announced by Gov.Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel Thursday afternoon. The University of Illinois plans to lead the way in creating a new $1.2 billion innovation center that will be built on an empty plot of land in the South Loop. The plan is short on details but big on a vision of turning Chicago into a major tech hub. Emanuel told a crowd at a press conference yesterday: "I see this as a big win for the city of Chicago and a big loss for the West Coast."

The innovation center will be known as the Discovery Partners Institute. Rauner says U of I graduates 10 percent of all computer science majors in the country, but the state loses them to tech companies in Silicon Valley and other states, according to the News-Gazette. The aim of DPI is to reverse that brain drain.

"What if we formed more collaboration with those universities and created a dense network of students, faculty and research; and encouraged them to form businesses, connect them to the university, and give them the rights and ability to take their research and their technology and commercialize them, and develop products?” Rauner said, in an interview with the Tribune last week. "We thought that would be a major magnet to keeping and growing the Illinois economy."

The plan is to hire on 90 faculty members, luring world-class entrepreneurs with lucrative start-up packages. The center would ultimately aim to serve 1,800 graduate and undergraduate students a year from the U of I system, as well as students from the University of Chicago and Northwestern.

U of I President Tim Killeen said he envisioned it a little like a study abroad program. Students would take off a semester—or four—while working at the institute's research labs, businesses and startups in the city.

"It's an attempt to really take advantage of the assets that the state and the city have to accelerate economic development and to provide opportunities for our students to stay in the state and for innovations to flow into our economy," Killeen said.

How this vision will actually come together is a little unclear. So far the innovation center does have a location. The Related, which also unveiled plans for its riverside mega-development on an empty South Loop lot, said that it would be donating a key piece of that 62-acre lot known as The 78 (so named for its plan to be the 78th neighborhood in Chicago). It currently occupies the east bank of the Chicago River between Roosevelt Road and 18th Street. There will also be a river walk, residences and commercial space planned for the location.

The project is envisioned as a public-private partnership, though where the money is coming from both the public and private sides isn't yet clear. That's led to some skepticism about the project. Rauner told the crowd yesterday, "We haven’t started any really focused fundraising yet. Right now we're laying out the vision."

The governor did say that public funding for the project will come from the sale of the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop, though that sale has been stalled.

A timetable for the project is expected to be announced next year.