University-Industry Engagement Week

U of Illinois system backs statewide corporate engagement effort

By David Schwartz
Published: September 3rd, 2019

The University of Illinois system is behind a statewide initiative called the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN), designed to “bolster the Illinois economy through entrepreneurship, research and workforce development,” according to a statement from the network.

The network, launched last August, is organized around a group of “hubs,” each one centered on a university campus. Each hub, in turn, interfaces with the network leadership as it develops and implements its programs. The first hubs at launch were campuses in Urbana, Springfield and Chicago, along with the new Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) in downtown Chicago. More recently added members were Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and Peoria, and new hubs Chicago State, Eastern Illinois, Governors State, Illinois State, Northeastern Illinois, the UI’s regional medical campus at Rockford, Southern Illinois-Carbondale, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Western Illinois.

“When I came to this office, we started thinking about how our system could reach out and do economic development in a much more substantial way — not just corporate engagement by campuses, but by the entire state,” says Ed Seidel, IIN’s vice president for economic development and innovation.

His associate VP, Kyle Harfst, joined the team about 18 months ago. He had been director of the Southern Illinois University Corporate Research Park, and Seidel says when Harfst heard about the network, he became excited because “he had never witnessed something this expansive.”

Within the network, Seidel explains, there is a council, and each hub has a representative. Harfst sat on the council when he was with SIU.

“Our ultimate development plan included a big innovation district in Chicago (DPI) in which all universities would participate, and then the other hubs,” says Seidel. “Together, they would address workforce development and harness research and education facilities — not just at the university level, but through partnerships with community colleges and high schools through community training. It would also include entrepreneurship and development, where we would train students and faculty in entrepreneurship, invest in companies they created, and involve venture capital.”

How was the network launched, and how did they get the universities to sign on? “We had a value proposition the state hadn’t seen; if carried out it would really have an impact on the entire state — not just the campuses,” says Seidel. “That allowed us to get the support of the Governor (who proposed a $500 million capital investment from the legislature, which was appropriated last year). So, there was money involved that in some ways was invested in all four-year public institutions and universities. And the system was clearly reaching out in a way they felt was a partnership.”

“This was a very effective, deliberative approach — through Memoranda of Understanding,” adds Harfst. “Various campuses had worked together before, but only by happenstance; this approach is a process.”

The hubs, naturally, focus on their existing strengths. For example, Seidel notes that Champaign-Urbana already has a research park with 17 buildings. “There are various things they can do around entrepreneurship training,” he says. “As a network, we help to carry out things in collaboration, so we’re creating a network of VCs across the whole state. There could be combined forces on courses they might teach. Some of the $500 million could be used to create a facility in Urbana around data science — which would also be created to work with companies across the state and other universities in terms of educational curriculum and training in entrepreneurship.”

A detailed article on the Illinois Innovation Network appears in the August issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For complete subscription details, CLICK HERE.

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Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week