U. of C. startup hub coming to 53rd Street

By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor

The University of Chicago wants more homegrown startups.

Hoping to foster cooperation between U. of C. affiliates and entrepreneurs, university representatives unveiled Friday plans for the Chicago Innovation Exchange (CIE), a startup incubator that will span the west side of the intersection of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue. The CIE will be complete by late 2014, according to the university.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and several other speakers joined U. of C. President Robert Zimmer on the second floor of the Harper Building, 1452 E. 53rd St. – part of the CIE’s future site — in offering their vision for the new complex.

“This new center will help entrepreneurs, scholars and students from across the university translate their ideas and discoveries into startup businesses and products,” Zimmer said. He added that the CIE will offer the university community and businesses “access to programming and expertise, venture capital and perhaps most importantly access to each other,” with a $20 million dollar “innovation fund” available for startups.

Venture capitalist John Flavin will head the CIE, which will occupy the second floors of the Harper Building, and, across the street from it, the Schuster Building, with a total square footage of 15,000 and 6,000 feet, respectively, according to U. of C. Commercial Development Project Manager John Dennis.

“The CIE will provide new opportunities for scholars and entrepreneurs, who will bring new products to consumers, and in the process it will create new businesses and jobs, sparking one of the most promising sectors in the local economy, here on 53rd Street, on Chicago’s South Side and throughout the region,” Zimmer said.

Startups conceived at the U. of C. include online food delivery service GrubHub and online payment platform Braintree, which was recently acquired by PayPal for $800 million.

The exchange will feature common areas and offices, according to renderings, bringing together a host of university institutions, such as Argonne National Laboratory – which will inaugurate its first Chicago operation there – as well as the Institute of Molecular Engineering and Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship.

Sunil Kumar, Dean of the U. of C.’s Booth School of Business, gave Friday’s introductory remarks to an audience that included Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and state Reps. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) and Christian Mitchell (D-26) and state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-13).

A university promotional video highlighted the school’s achievements and faculty, giving way to remarks from six other speakers, including the mayor, Argonne Board of Governors member MaryAnn Wright, U. of C. Professor of Radiology Mary Ellen Geiger and philanthropist Michael Polsky, founder of the school’s namesake institution.

“I think this year we’ve witnessed … a huge shift in the culture of the University of Chicago, the city of Chicago, toward innovation and entrepreneurs,” Polsky said.

“At this point, it’s really even hard to imagine how [a] major university – or a major corporate area like this – can even excel without strong commitment to entrepreneurs and innovation,” Polsky said. “I think having Mayor Emanuel here is a strong confirmation of his commitment.”

Both Polsky and the mayor compared the CIE to 1871, a common working space for digital startups located downtown.

Zimmer introduced the event’s final speaker, Mayor Emanuel, calling him a “wonderful supporter of education on all levels.” Emanuel segued from his introductory quips to education, and emphasized the importance of universities, which he called Chicago’s “driving force.”

He announced the presence of Chicago Board of Education member Andrea Zopp and said he “wanted to make sure” he and CPS Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett had her support in sending all of the city’s students to college.

“I want our kids around the city of Chicago, throughout, to see the University of Chicago as a part of their future,” Emanuel said. “If we do that, we’re going to be an unbelievable, great city, and that’s our goal as a city.”

Calling it “an exciting day for the world,” he added, “This space creates a single flat world, where all [the university's] efforts come together and become products that change the world.”

Without offering a specific timeline or dates, Zimmer said that the CIE has been in development for “quite a while,” given the coordination that took place between the university’s various institutions, such as its medical center and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship.

The CIE will join Harper Court and other new tenants on 53rd Street, such as chef Matthias Merges’ restaurant, A10, as part of 53rd Street’s fast-changing real-estate landscape.

Friday’s announcement comes less than two months after John Dennis said at a community meeting the university had no plans for the Shuster building.

j.bishku@hpherald.com