U. of C. opens new innovation hub for entrepreneurs and start-ups

Mayor Rahm Emanuel joins University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer for the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony of the Chicago Innovation Exchange.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel joins University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer for the grand opening of the Chicago Innovation Exchange on 53rd Street in Hyde Park.

By J’nelle Agee

Chicago has long wanted to be known as a hub for digital startups and high-tech companies. That dream has started to materialize in recent years with the success of homegrown companies such as Groupon and GrubHub. But most of the tech activity in the Windy City has remained north of the Loop.

The South Side struck back Thursday as the University of Chicago christened a business incubator known as the Chicago Innovation Exchange.

The center, located just north of campus in the Hyde Park neighborhood, will provide resources and mentoring to entrepreneurs and start-up companies, some of them the result of business plans created by students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

U. of C. President Robert Zimmer, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel were on hand for the grand-opening and ribbon-cutting ceremonies Thursday.

“If you want to be on the cutting edge of technology whether that’s on sustainability, from energy to water, to healthcare to transportation, the City of Chicago is where you come, where you innovate and where you find the ability to think of the next thing,” Emanuel said.

The innovation center is looking to compete with 1871, a technology co-working space located in the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago. The tech start-up hub has been so well received it recently announced a $2.5 million expansion.

Tenants of 1871 pay membership fees to rent space and take advantage of the facility’s amenities, which include workshops and speakers. It has been lauded by city leaders for creating new jobs and bringing investment dollars to Chicago.

In a similar fashion, the Hyde Park innovation exchange will bring together U. of C. students and members of the South Side community who tackle urban challenges from a variety of directions. The exchange will work with all colleges and departments on campus, not just the Booth School, university officials said.

The center will use resources from various parts of the university, including the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which is housed at Booth. The Polsky Center sponsors research, arranges conferences and conducts business plan competitions for U. of C. students. In its turn, the new innovation center will provide resources to U. of C. faculty, students and entrepreneurs who are interested in turning their research and ideas into business ventures.

“The CIE is about space, access, connections, diversity, experiential learning and collaboration,” said John Flavin, the center’s director.

Quinn announced that the State of Illinois will provide the exchange with a $1 million capital grant to support its infrastructure and future development plans.

“The University of Chicago is a trailblazer and today is just another example,” Quinn said Thursday. “The Chicago Innovation Exchange is extremely important to economic development in our state, to jobs, to entrepreneurship and innovation.”

The space will house a business incubator where entrepreneurs can work alongside each other in a creative space. “The Polsky Center and the CIE have been helping us on the journey,” said Chin-Chin Lin, founder of Lumii Health, a health-care technology start-up. “We’re still trying to change the world and the Polsky Center and the CIE are helping us do it.”

Entrepreneurs who wish to use the center’s co-working spaces will have to pay an incubator fee. Fees will be waived for U. of C. students. Workshops will be free of charge.

The center includes meeting rooms for approximately 150 students and faculty members and dedicated office space for the CIE management team. Three major national laboratories will also have a presence at the center. They include Argonne National Laboratory, the science and engineering research laboratory; Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which specializes in high-energy particle physics; and the Marine Biological Laboratory, a center for biology, biomedicine and ecology research.

The newly constructed building represents the first of two phases.

Phase II, which is expected to be completed in the spring, will be adjacent to the current structure and include a wet lab where chemicals and biological materials will be handled and a computer fabrication facility. It will have room for 300 individuals to work on business ventures.