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Research, supercomputing UILabs may setup shop downtown or West Loop

Updated: February 28, 2013 6:57AM

Backers of a research, development and supercomputing lab have narrowed a location to three or four sites downtown and in the West Loop.

“(The sites) are in and around downtown or the West Loop — very much in the nightlife and transportation network of the city,” Chicago venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, a key player in developing the lab concept, said in an interview on Friday. “We want this to be attractive to the most talented young people in the world.”

The lab, proposed by the University of Illinois and called the UI Labs, may have more than one location — and one of those could be at the Merchandise Mart where tech center 1871 provides 50,000 square feet of working space to digital and technology entrepreneurs, sources say.

Rauner, who said he will personally commit “millions” of dollars to the UI Labs project, declined to disclose the locations.

Rauner is an investor in Sun-Times Media owner Wrapports LLC and chairman of his self-financed venture firm R8Capital Partners.

He said he has kept up with consulting firms’ reports since the early- to mid-1980s advising the University of Illinois to forge closer ties with “economic centers” statewide, including Chicago. He spoke to U of I alumni about the situation about five years ago, but it wasn’t until Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor that Rauner, a close advisor to the mayor, took a more active role.

Rauner called the UI Labs “an institute of technology” and “an innovation lab.”

The UI Labs ideally could boast an endowment worth “hundreds of millions” and break even on its own partly from corporations setting up “contract research” agreements with the lab.

Last week, Larry Schook, the university’s vice president of research in charge of the project and member of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council, described the IU Labs’ goal as attracting tech startups, manufacturers and big corporations to solve problems in energy, transportation, advanced manufacturing, food production and health care technology.

The aim is to keep jobs, students and world-class researchers in the Midwest.

UI Labs, which would be set up as a private, not-for-profit company with its own board of directors, intends to raise its $90 million to $100 million budget outlay 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.

Is Bell Labs the right model?

Jon Gertner, author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” said the IU Labs’ notion of combining research with advanced manufacturing — just as Bell Labs did — makes sense because it results in ideas becoming “real products.”

But he said he devotes part of his book to today’s new innovation models because the “glory days” are over for monolithic organizations such as Bell Labs and NASA. Today’s innovations rely on fewer people, venture-capital funding, more complex hardware and lightning-speed product breakthroughs, he said.

Rauner said he believes the Bell Labs model is still relevant because it is based on the idea of letting talented people work together freely and form “ad hoc” teams to solve problems and create inventions.

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