UChicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign partner on major innovation initiative

Collaboration is first project in statewide plan for tech and economic development

The UChicago-Illinois collaboration will be part of the expansion of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Hyde Park.
Illustration by
Wexford Science and Technology
Mark Peters
News Director and Social Sciences SpecialistUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are launching a partnership dedicated to research and technology development for some of society’s most pressing challenges, from producing clean water to treating cancer.

The partnership will bring about 100 faculty, researchers and students from Urbana-Champaign to collaborate with UChicago colleagues, entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and will be based at the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation complex on Chicago’s South Side. In addition, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory announced Oct. 18 that it plans to establish its central states location for research and technology at the Polsky Center.

The primary goal of the partnership with UChicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will be developing and commercializing groundbreaking technology, driving the formation of startup companies and other links to industry. The Polsky Center, which helps innovators commercialize ideas and technologies and fosters the creation of new businesses at UChicago and on the South Side, will lead the partnership. The academic partners and developer Wexford Science and Technology have been working with the city, local elected officials and community members on planning for the new innovation facility.

Civic and academic leaders said the partnership at the Polsky Center complex will be the first major new project to get underway within the Illinois Innovation Network, which Gov. Bruce Rauner announced on Oct. 19. The partnership between the two universities will create a major opportunity for the region, strengthening the foundation for the next generation of technology and economic development in the city and the state. As part of the initiative’s commitment to the South Side, the two universities will launch a joint civic engagement program to support South Side entrepreneurs.

“This exciting collaboration between two of Illinois’ leading academic institutions and the Army Research Lab has the power to catalyze scientific research and address our society’s most pressing challenges,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “When great minds come together around audacious goals, the possibilities are limitless. I look forward to witnessing the discoveries that result from this dynamic new partnership.”

“The partnership between these two world-renowned universities is an exciting development for Illinois and its growing network of technology development and innovation,” Rauner said. “It represents an extraordinary collaboration of talent and resources and portends extraordinary solutions for some of society’s most challenging concerns.”

Two areas of focus for the partnership will be advanced analytics and advanced materials, bringing together key strengths of each institution. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, top-ranked computer science and information sciences programs, as well as a leading materials science and engineering program. The University of Chicago, with its Institute for Molecular Engineering and in collaboration with affiliated Argonne National Laboratory, is a leader in high-performance computing and home to ambitious new initiatives in computer science, data science and materials science. The work in technology and startup businesses will contribute to key industries, including smart infrastructure, transportation, energy, health care and manufacturing.

“The rapid evolution of technology is leading to dramatic opportunities for science, engineering and venture formation in the areas of advanced materials and data and computer sciences,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “By making the most of each institution’s distinctive leadership in science, engineering and business development, and our combined infrastructure, this ambitious initiative will accelerate the pace of discovery while providing a clear path to economic development for our community, city and state.”

The rapidly developing innovation ecosystem on the South Side helped attract the interest of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, which had been looking to establish a new presence in the Chicago area. The Army Research Laboratory will be working with universities in the region through ARL Central, the lab’s first physical presence in the Midwest. ARL Central is designed to leverage regional expertise and facilities throughout the region to accelerate discovery, innovation and transition of science and technology.

“In the last two centuries, scientific research has helped split the atom, put a man on the moon, create the Internet and map the human genome. Today we face new hurdles, but continuing to support scientific research is the smartest investment we can make for our health, our future and our economy,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. “I’m proud to support this innovative partnership, which highlights the best of Illinois.”  

The new collaborations will be part of the expansion of the Polsky Center at a proposed new Hyde Park innovation facility, which was announced in June by the developer Wexford Science and Technology. The project, expected to begin next year, is the second phase of the Harper Court redevelopment.

“Our institutions lead the way in advanced analytics and advanced materials, and these fields will drive new technologies and new business opportunities,” said Robert J. Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This partnership with the University of Chicago is exciting and exemplifies the kind of collaborations between public and private universities that the times and societal challenges demand of us. More importantly, it’s a win for the entire state of Illinois to have its flagship university and one of the world’s leading engineering programs so deeply engaged in the civic and economic life of the city of Chicago.”

This expansion of the Polsky Center and collaboration between UChicago and Urbana-Champaign will bring students and faculty together to form startups. Since this partnership started in 2014, startups such as ExplORer Surgical and Tovala have utilized resources and talent from both universities in order to build and launch their ventures.

The work of the Polsky Center, at the intersection of research and new business opportunities, was dramatically expanded last year after University of Chicago Trustee and Invenergy founder Michael Polsky, who received his MBA from UChicago in 1987, increased his gift in support of entrepreneurship and innovation to $50 million