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U. of C. to open business incubator to spur innovation

Two women walk past Harper Library University Chicago campus Hyde park 2004.  |  Sun-Times file photo

Two women walk past the Harper Library on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde park in 2004. | Sun-Times file photo

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A new tech incubator is going up on the South Side.

The University of Chicago announced Friday that it will open the incubator, called the Chicago Innovation Exchange, late next year to turn early stage ideas into businesses.

The announcement coincides with universities’ growing efforts to commercialize their faculty and student research. At the same time, they’re justifying the taxpayer-funded lab work and enabling students to gain business and workplace skills.

The goal is to create five to 10 companies a year — some from local entrepreneurs and others from the university’s students and faculty. The exchange can house up to 350 people in flexible co-working space.

The exchange’s leaders already have started raising $20 million in private funds to invest in the fledgling businesses in fields such as biotech, big data, clean energy, drug discovery and materials science, Executive Director John Flavin said.

“It will be a place where people can start their businesses surrounded by mentors, programming, workshops and potential commercial partners,” said Flavin, a serial biotech entrepreneur who ran biotech incubator Chicago Innovation Mentors.

The 25,000-square-foot exchange will be split between two buildings at 53rd Street and Harper Avenue — the Harper Theater complex on the northwest corner and a retail office building on the southwest corner.

The center will give Argonne National Laboratory its first physical presence in Chicago’s city limits. Argonne will put the business offices of its energy-storage research program in a portion of the exchange. Another section of the exchange will house the Institute for Molecular Engineering’s water research project.

The exchange will draw on a host of partners for support, including the Booth School of Business; the Computation Institute; Fermi National Accelerator Lab; the Marine Biological Laboratory; the Michael P. Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the university’s Center for Technology Development and Ventures.

The exchange is part of the university’s efforts to redevelop 53rd Street and to take a bigger role in Chicago’s efforts to attract tech startups.

Flavin cited the 1871 tech hub at the Merchandise Mart, the University of Illinois’ plan to open a downtown Chicago research center and the Illinois Medical District’s plan for a health, technology and innovation center as among the ways Chicago is enlarging its tech startup efforts.

University officials also hope the exchange will boost local businesses.

Derek Douglas, the University of Chicago’s vice president for civic engagement, said the exchange will provide a “much-needed link between the South Side and the city’s growing innovation network.”

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