Design unveiled for Discovery Partners Institute headquarters

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and a host of other business and educational leaders from across Chicago unveiled Friday the design for the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute, the centerpiece of The 78, a new neighborhood set to rise on vacant land just southwest of downtown.

The research organization’s $250 million headquarters was touted as the future crown jewel of a growing ecosystem of laboratories and high-tech facilities, a hub that officials said would fuel job growth and halt Chicago’s “brain drain” of skilled tech workers.

“The new DPI headquarters will house offices, classrooms, labs and event space along the Chicago River, turning a long-vacant old rail yard into a world-class talent and innovation powerhouse with the aesthetic to match,” Pritzker said.

“This is going to cement our place as a Tier 1 tech community,” added Lightfoot.

The 78 developer Related Midwest plans to start construction in 2024 on DPI and four other buildings, including offices, wet lab space and a student center for the university, and finish all by 2026, according to company President Curt Bailey.

It will be the first steps taken toward filling the empty 62-acre riverfront site between Roosevelt Road on the north and Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park on the south, and the university’s institute should attract companies looking to recruit its students and researchers, he added.

“The DPI is going to be the driver, the engine that makes things happen,” he said. “This is going to be one of the most incredible opportunities in the country for a tech firm to move into an urban environment.”

OMA New York architect Christy Cheng said the design of the eight-story glass-and-steel dome reflects DPI’s mission to draw people from all walks of life, including students and people with doctorates. The ground floor will be open on all sides and welcoming to passersby, with no front or back door. The interior won’t be segregated in any way, with classrooms and research spaces all mixed, and a central atrium will act as a gathering space, where high school students can run into and meet Nobel Prize winners.

The state kicked in $500 million to help fund DPI, along with a network of research hubs at other Illinois universities. And officials say they expect it will form a nucleus that will stop promising researchers and startup firms from leaving the state once they reach a certain level of success and need the kind of venture capital found in places like Silicon Valley if they want to keep growing.

“That’s been a lamentable trend, and we need to turn it around,” said Tim Killeen, president of the University of Illinois System. “It’s not just a brain drain; the dollars are leaving.”

The lab, research and office spaces at DPI will give entrepreneurs the chance to start small, and turn ideas developed at any university in the region, not just the University of Illinois, into new companies that graduate into bigger spaces and attract more funding, he added. It’s an opportune time, as high housing costs and other living expenses on the coasts are squeezing struggling entrepreneurs.

“I think the coasts are a little tapped out right now,” he said. “So, I think this is a big opportunity for the middle of the country.”

DPI is already at work across the state, tracking the spread of COVID-19 through the analysis of wastewater, as well as training hundreds of students each year in tech fields, according to Killeen. It will soon expand its training programs to serve nearly 1,000 students per year.

That could help build pipelines between tech firms and communities where tech jobs have been scarce, said Zaldwaynaka Scott, president of Chicago State University, a predominantly Black school on the city’s South Side.

“It will provide opportunities for our students to engage with the tech sector in ways that are real and meaningful,” she said.

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