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U of I System sets innovation network priorities in Urbana
Plans include creating data science center, expanding Research Park

URBANA, Ill. – Building a world-class center devoted to the fast-growing field of data science and expanding an award-winning Research Park are top priorities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the U of I System develops a new statewide innovation network to accelerate job creation and economic growth, officials announced today.

Both projects will be funded with a portion of the $500 million in state capital funding that was approved last spring to launch the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) and Illinois Innovation Network (IIN).

The data science center will be created by replacing Illini Hall near the Main Quad and building a state-of-the-art classroom and research facility focused on creating knowledge through statistics, data analysis and machine learning. The other project will expand the Research Park in Urbana-Champaign, which has earned high-profile awards for facilitating innovation and supporting entrepreneurship since opening in 2001.

Funding amounts will be known once state dollars are available. The state is currently working on a bond sale that will provide capital funding to help develop DPI, an innovation center that will be home to leading-edge research, and IIN, a virtually connected network of regional hubs that will share expertise to impact communities across the state. Urbana-Champaign and the system’s universities in Chicago and Springfield are inaugural hubs.

“We have made remarkable progress since the innovation network was announced last fall,” U of I President Tim Killeen said. “The funding priorities we have set will pay dividends for our universities and for a new enterprise that promises to lead Illinois to a new era of progress and prosperity.”

The Urbana-Champaign projects, as well as investments planned at hubs in Chicago and Springfield, will build on unique strengths at each university that serve the core focuses of DPI and IIN. Their world-class expertise will then be shared to foster education, entrepreneurship and discovery via a virtual network that will bridge the distance between communities.

Core focuses include advances in “big data” and computing technology, from cybersecurity to the internet of things; in healthcare, including new drugs and treatment methods such as telehealth; in food and agriculture breakthroughs to improve nutrition and help feed a growing world; and in environment and water innovations that protect our natural resources and provide for a growing population.

Projects at Urbana-Champaign that are priorities for a portion of state capital funding are:

Data science center

The project will create a new, 60,000- to 80,000-square-foot classroom and research facility on the current site of Illini Hall, a facility near the Main Quad that was built in 1907 and originally housed the University YMCA. The current 50,000-square-foot building now primarily houses classrooms and computer labs.

As part of its five-year strategic plan, the Urbana campus also will be making its own $20 million commitment to fund cross-campus faculty hiring programs in the data sciences and to advance the physical computational infrastructure of the campus.

The facility will be an incubator of data science education programs and research collaboration among academic units that are at the center of the growing “big data” movement – the departments of Statistics, Mathematics and Computer Science and the School of Information Sciences – to create new engagement across the entire campus to advance new ideas, principles, policies, regulations, and tools for the just, safe, sustainable and peaceful progress for the world’s digital transformation. The School of Information Sciences ranks first in the nation and the computer science department fifth in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Those units are also growing, with undergraduate enrollment in Statistics, Mathematics and Computer Science that has doubled in the last decade. They also have deep connections with businesses that would serve IIN’s mission through internship agreements and alumni who work at Fortune 500 firms across the state and beyond. Faculty from the units are involved in interdisciplinary research that touches all fields at the core of IIN’s mission.

Research Park expansion

The project will continue the rapid expansion of the U of I Research Park, an award-winning technology hub that cultivates start-up businesses, accelerates innovation and provides hands-on training for students.

Since opening in 2001, the Research Park has grown to 17 buildings and is home to more than 120 companies that work with university faculty and students to foster product and workforce development. Multinational companies with offices at the Research Park include Archer Daniels Midland, Abbott Laboratories, AB InBev, Caterpillar, Deere & Company, Grainger Industrial Supply and Yahoo.

The Research Park employs more than 2,100 people, and more than 800 student interns work with companies at any given time, gaining valuable work experience while supporting real-world research and corporate development programs.

The park is also a business incubator that turns faculty research discovery into high-tech, start-up businesses – a model that will support economy-building programs at DPI and IIN’s hubs across the state. The park is home to more than 70 start-up companies and has launched more than 250 new businesses since opening.

During the forum, Killeen also introduced William H. Sanders, who was appointed last week as interim director of DPI. Sanders, an award-winning educator and researcher, has served as head of Urbana’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 2014. He will lead all facets of planning and operations, including planning to build the new downtown Chicago institute, faculty and staff hiring, development of research and educational programs, and forging agreements with corporate and academic partners.

Killeen said the system is making strong progress in those areas, and announcements are expected later this year.

Plans for DPI and IIN were announced in October by Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose vision of a university-based initiative to drive economic development predated his term as governor.

“With U of I System in the lead, we can create a Cal Tech-Stanford/MIT-Harvard style connection between students, faculty, research, enterprise development and investment capital that will power unprecedented economic growth … with one big difference. With all its campuses, partnerships and, most important, its renowned faculty, the U of I initiative can far surpass the output of Silicon Valley and I-5,” Rauner said.

Work is currently underway on an implementation plan that will establish a timetable for opening and other details of the enterprise, where world-class researchers will work side-by-side with students and businesses to foster next-generation innovation and workforce development.

DPI will be developed on a donated site along the Chicago River, and will bring together top faculty in agriculture, healthcare, computing, environment, and other critical fields from the U of I System and partner universities that already include the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Tel Aviv University. New researchers also will be added and together they will connect with hundreds of businesses and thousands of students over time, as well as with entrepreneurs and venture capital firms.

Their research and educational collaborations will address real-world challenges, promoting the kind of breakthrough discoveries that create new products and companies. Those innovations will fuel economic growth, while also providing hands-on experiences for students and nurturing a skilled workforce for the city and state.

The institute will be the centerpiece of IIN, a virtually connected statewide enterprise allowing DPI staff to work with university and business partners in other regions across the state on research and education initiatives that help launch new companies and lift communities.


The University of Illinois System is a world leader in research and discovery, and the largest educational institution in the state with more than 83,000 students, nearly 25,000 faculty and staff, and universities in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield. The U of I System awards more than 22,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees annually.