With Gov. Pat Quinn on hand to show his support, the U. of I. Board of Trustees heard plans for a nonprofit, university-affiliated research technology center designed to improve the economy of Illinois and Chicago and to make the area attractive to new innovators.
UI Labs will be “a vision built upon collective input” from the three U. of I. campuses and other partner universities, research institutions and industries, said Lawrence Schook, the university vice president for research, at the trustees meeting Jan. 24 in Chicago.
“It’s a new way of approaching translational research and training,” Schook said. “It’s about harnessing movement and free flowing ideas – hundreds of faculty and students moving between UI Labs and their home institutions, asking a common question: ‘What’s next?’ “It will be a union of state, city, university and business to solve society’s technology challenges.”
Another goal, Schook said later on the WTTW-TV “Chicago Tonight” news program, “is to make Chicago a destination for talent around the world to come here and say, ‘This is a place where I can build my future.’ ”
Schook said UI Labs would be modeled after Bell Labs, a technology center that produced innovations in the mid- to late-20th century that included the transistor, the laser and cellular phone systems.
Work would be organized around themes, with a focus on solutions, Schook said.
"Food and water are two big world issues as world populations grow," Quinn said. "I would hope UI Labs will focus on sustainability, where that entails clean water, food and agriculture – not only feeding the world, but fueling the world and healing the world."
Teams would be assembled from the university’s three campuses and other institutions to work “without the typical constraints of the academic environment, to create industry-targeted needs on short notice,” Schook said.
“We are now in an era where new knowledge and ideas generated by universities are critical for sustaining local and state competitiveness,” he said.
UI Labs would be a research hub for about 250 faculty fellows over the next three years, with research opportunities for about 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students over five years.
Schook mentioned a program similar to study abroad that would bring technology students from all over the world to learn at UI Labs.
The facility would be funded through philanthropy, grants and partnerships with industry. Startup costs are estimated at $20 million, with an annual budget of $90 million to $100 million over the next five years, Schook said.
Some grant funds could be redirected back to campus researchers in collaborative projects, he said.
Although no decision has been made on a specific location, Schook said on “Chicago Tonight” that he expects the project to be under way within a year.
Schook compared plans for UI Labs to the beginnings of Silicon Valley, a northern California region now the world center of high-tech business.
“We look at UI Labs as the first step in a journey,” he said, noting that its location and size are not as important as “where it will take us in the future.”