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Agriculture, Big Data research hub planned in South Chicago

CHICAGO, Ill. — It’s not often these days top Illinois political leaders from Chicago and Springfield, and from both sides of the political aisle, can see eye-to-eye on many issues.

But when it comes to a new ag-focused research facility with the state’s top three institutions on board, all leaders hailed the startup of the new technology center to be based on Chicago’s South Side.

During a press conference last month, Gov. Bruce Rauner, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and University of Illinois President Tim Killeen announced the new Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) would make food and agriculture, along with advanced materials, health and bioscience and Big Data the institute’s top priorities.

The new DPI, to be constructed on a vacant, 62-acre chunk of land abutting the Chicago River near Roosevelt Road, is slated to open in 2022 at an estimated cost of about $1.2 billion, officials said.

The institute will be the physical lynchpin to the U of I’s startup of the Illinois Innovation Network, which is planned to attract top research professors from throughout the country to work with students and businesses to develop new products, work processes and programs useful for commercial developments.

It eventually will be home to 90 top research faculty, who will be based at the institute, coming from the U of I, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Once up and running, the institute will host 1,800 students for two years’ worth of study and research, “honing their talents and planting roots,” Killeen said.

Among the institute’s key goals are to create jobs and to help improve the state’s out-migration rate of college-bound students, and then to keep them in Illinois after graduation.

Killeen said the institute will “add to the momentum that has been growing rapidly here in Chicago” and fueled by several tech incubators, including 1871 and mHub. “(The institute) will deliver a high-powered jolt – yes, a jolt – at the kind of scale that can massively accelerate job creation and economic development. And we’re all in,” he added.

Rauner, a Republican, said the keys to economic growth in Illinois are innovation and technology. He said that the state can accomplish this in part by convincing the students from Illinois’ most tech-savvy universities to remain and start their companies in Illinois.

“Our No. 1 goal must be to have the University of Illinois expand its impact, expand its opportunities, here within the state of Illinois, so its students, its faculty, its researchers, its entrepreneurs, have an opportunity to build their businesses here – in downtown Chicago, Urbana-Champaign, Rockford, Peoria, Springfield,” he said.

Emanuel, a Democrat, said, "This is a big win for the city of Chicago and a big loss for the West Coast," referencing that the planned project was included in the city’s bid to win the site sweepstakes for a second headquarters for Amazon, Inc.

Officials said many specific details about the proposal will be fine-tuned during the coming year, including how to raise much of the $1.2 billion from private sources. How much public funding will be required hasn’t been determined, they said.