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U of I pursues Chicago center for research, startups, supercomputing

Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses students National Center for Supercomputing Applications University Illinois Urbana-Champaign. File PhoTuesday October 2 2012.  |

Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. File Photo, Tuesday, October 2, 2012. | John Dixon~News-Gazette via AP

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Updated: February 25, 2013 12:57PM

The University of Illinois is pushing ahead with plans to create a Chicago research, development and supercomputing center — or multiple centers — where tech startups, manufacturers and big corporations can solve problems in energy, transportation, advanced manufacturing, food production and health care technology.

The university’s board of trustees will hear an update Thursday on the plan.

Rather than serving as an incubator for entrepreneurial wannabes with ideas, the trademarked “UI Labs: The Future Today,” would be aimed at attracting researchers, engineers and others with problems already in need of solving, said Larry Schook, the university’s vice president of research in charge of the project. Schook serves on Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council, designed to come up with ways to boost economic growth.

The goal is to raise $20 million for the first year of operations for the UI Labs, which would set up as a private, not-for-profit company with its own board of directors. The University of Illinois would have an “affiliation agreement” with UI Labs and offer resources to the researchers from its National Center for Supercomputing Applications and its Blue Waters supercomputer.

The UI Labs’ yearly budget is pegged at $90 million to $100 million in the next five years, to be raised from grants, private donors and strategic partnerships.

The concept is modeled on the former Bell Labs, the storied New Jersey lab that developed the laser, the transistor and the C programming language, among other innovations, and which allowed scientists and engineers from academia, industry and government to work together on life-changing innovations.

No locations have been selected for UI Labs, but one site might be devoted to workforce development, Schook said Wednesday.

A research “hub” would be set up for 250 faculty fellows within the next three years, according to an outline of the project obtained by the Sun-Times.

More than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students would get training and entrepreneurial opportunities at the UI Labs in the next five years. One concept would have junior-year engineering students spend a semester or a year working at UI Labs. Lab supporters hope to enlist support and participation from federal laboratories, industry partners and universities such as the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

Steve Koch, Chicago’s deputy mayor, said the Labs could conceivably employ 1,000 researchers, scientists, academics and industry professionals.

The UI Labs idea, first reported by the Champaign News-Gazette in October, stems from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to create a “critical mass” of technology, engineering, research and computing jobs in Chicago to keep university students from fleeing Illinois and to attract a new population of professionals downtown.

Koch said if Chicago can attract brilliant professionals downtown, “you will have the same virtuous circle that occurred around Stanford (University) and Silicon Valley.”

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