Gov. Bruce Rauner long has argued that one of the state’s best economic bets would be to somehow bridge the 140-mile gap that separates two of its strongest assets: the University of Illinois main campus in Urbana-Champaign and the city of Chicago. He thinks he’s got it figured out.
Joined by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen, Rauner plans to announce tomorrow morning a project called the Discovery Partners Institute, which would be built on a 62-acre site along the Chicago River south of Roosevelt Road that is being developed by Related Midwest. Related calls the site “78” in reference to hopes of becoming the city’s 78th neighborhood. The property also has been floated as a possible site for Amazon’s second headquarters, which the city and state jointly are pursuing.
The governor’s office confirmed that it will make an announcement tomorrow related to a “public-private partnership” but declined to elaborate.
The institute would be funded initially by as much as $200 million in private donors lined up by the governor, according to people who’ve heard the pitch. Exactly what programs will be represented is unclear, but it likely would involve both the university’s flagship campus and the University of Illinois at Chicago and both research and instruction activities. In broad strokes, the idea is to get academics and companies to collaborate on “pushing the art of the possible,” said one executive who was pitched on the idea by Rauner. It’s part of a broader innovation corridor envisioned by the governor that has multiple “nodes.”
With the clock running out on Rauner’s first term, the announcement would allow him to show some momentum on the economic-development front (along with hopes of landing Amazon and a Toyota-Mazda assembly plant, which the state also is pursuing). The question will be whether he can deliver.
Before he ran for governor four years ago, Rauner, a longtime private-equity investor, was pitching the idea of linking Chicago’s capital with talent at U of I, which has one of the world’s top engineering and computer-science schools in Urbana. The goal was to give Chicago and the state some of the startup spark that Silicon Valley and Boston have gotten from their nearby universities, Stanford, Harvard and MIT.
In 2011, Rauner sketched out the idea. It required a “commitment of U of I to expand its computer science/engineering program to Chicago in a major way, opening a significant IT campus in the (Illinois Medical District) or elsewhere near downtown, moving faculty and students here on a large scale—with that plan in place, investment $ and additional technology will readily flow,” he wrote in an email to Larry Schook, former vice president for research for the U of I’s three campuses, according to emails to Emanuel’s private email address that were released late last year.
That was Rauner’s vision for UI Labs, which ultimately morphed into a manufacturing-technology center on Goose Island that involved multiple universities in order to land a big federal grant. But Rauner never gave up on the idea of creating more of a presence in Chicago for U of I’s Urbana faculty and students to launch more tech companies and create jobs and wealth.
He hinted at it again in his state of the state address Jan. 25, saying: “Illinois is home to some of the greatest research universities in the world. Working in partnership, we can create a technology and innovation center here in the Midwest that can rival Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle, creating tens of thousands of high-paying jobs.”
There already have been some efforts to bridge the gap. Three years ago, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business began collaborating with U of I’s College of Engineering to encourage students from the two campuses to collaborate on projects and potential startups. U of I’s College of Engineering recently announced a program called City Scholars that would bring 50 students to Chicago next spring for paid internships.