State searches for $1.2 billion to fund Chicago innovation center

Though it has strong political support, the first facility to serve in a planned network of Illinois innovation centers still seeks firm financial backing.

The visuals for Chicago’s new innovation center are a sight. Set on 62 acres in downtown Chicago, the offices are wrapped in a checkerboard of glass windows, and a verdant garden sits beneath, along with cobbled walkways, concrete ponds, spacious lobbies and throngs of people all spattered in between.

The renderings are concept illustrations of the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), the first of many planned state innovation centers that will be part of a new Illinois Innovation Network (IIN). Gov. Bruce Rauner is backing the network along with the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC). The intent of the initiative is to plant collaboration hubs throughout Illinois that drive data analytics, big data, the Internet of Things and other advances in markets like the food industry, agriculture and health and wellness.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the institute “a transformative force” for innovation while Rauner painted it as a big play for high tech jobs.

“DPI will help drive economic growth for generations,” Rauner said in a statement. “It combines our state’s most valuable resources in education, technology and business so we can attract venture capital to build the businesses and jobs of the future.”


Yet even with political support, funding for the DPI is in limbo. Rauner’s office estimates the total cost for the innovation center will be $1.2 billion, and these funds are expected to come from state and local coffers as well as a mix of private donations and support from the private sector.

The Chicago Tribune reported Oct. 19 that the funding is still unconfirmed. The state legislature has not committed any money as of yet, there are no official commitments of private capital, and the possible $300 million sale of the state-owned Thompson Center — a 1.2 million square-foot facility in Chicago — is facing political holdups.

Even so, officials are expressing confidence they can still reach the price point. Related Midwest, a Chicago-based real estate developer, has already contributed the land for construction on a plot it calls “The 78” in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. No construction date has been set, but Rauner’s Office says a timeline for implementation will come sometime next year.

In addition to the DPI, The 78 will also be home to residential homes, businesses and recreation areas. This entails dedicating 40 percent of the land to open space and a half-mile of developed riverfront.

If the state, city and UIUC can secure the necessary funding it is expected that the DPI will have onsite up to 90 faculty members from the university system’s three campuses. The educators will be responsible for coordinating research with more than 1,800 graduate and undergraduate students, according to the release.


The university also aims to connect with venture capital firms so research can be turned into innovative products and services from startups. 

UIUC President Tim Killeen said his vision is that DPI sets the stage for modern solutions that can solve some of the most vexing problems in Chicago and Illinois. 

“This unique new institute will add to the momentum that has been developing in Chicago to create an innovation infrastructure at the kind of scale that can massively accelerate progress and economic development in our state,” Killeen said.

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