U. of C. unveils incubator

By JEFFREY BISHKU AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor

Hoping to spur entrepreneurship on campus, University of Chicago representatives unveiled plans last week for the Chicago Innovation Exchange (CIE), a startup incubator that will span the west side of the intersection of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue by late 2014.

U. of C. President Robert Zimmer outlined his vision for the new complex at a public announcement Friday on the second floor of the Harper Building, 1452 E. 53rd St., where he was joined onstage by speakers including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Booth School of Business Dean Sunil Kumar.

“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, adding that a $20 million “innovation fund” would be available to startups.

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

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. The two wings will be 15,000 and 6,000 square feet, respectively, according to U. of C. Commercial Development Project Manager Jonathan Dennis.

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Zimmer said the exchange would “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.”

The CIE will feature common areas and offices, 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 and Innovation.

Kumar 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).

Friday’s seven speakers also included MaryAnn Wright, of the Argonne National Laboratory Board of Governors, and businessman Michael Polsky, who endowed the U. of C.’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 downtown’s 1871, a common working space for digital startups.

Emanuel emphasized the importance of universities, which he called Chicago’s “driving force” and announced the presence of Chicago Board of Education member Andrea Zopp, calling for 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.”

He added, “This space creates a single flat world, where all [the university’s] efforts come together and become products that change the world.”

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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 and Innovation.

The CIE will join Harper Court and other new tenants on 53rd Street, including 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 Jonathan Dennis said at a community meeting the university had no plans for the Shuster building. A week later he told the Herald in a letter that the building’s second floor would house “office space, which we hope can … contribute to the vitality of the neighborhood.”

j.bishku@hpherald.com