/University of Chicago, Northwestern should join U of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute (via Qpute.com)

University of Chicago, Northwestern should join U of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute (via Qpute.com)

“We’re so proud that Northwestern and the University of Chicago are joining with us—the University of Illinois system—and together we’re unstoppable,” Killeen said.

Killeen was right about that last part. A lineup of U of I, Northwestern and U of C would form a scientific murderer’s row on par with the best academic talent any city in the country could assemble.

It seems Killeen may have spoken too soon about the first part. In comments to Marek, Northwestern and U of C stopped well short of full-throated commitments to DPI. The Northwestern official who attended in 2017 said any role for the university in DPI “is a conversation for the future.” A U of C spokesman called DPI “an exciting initiative that will be important for UIUC and the city, and we look forward to playing a collaborative role as planning continues.”

I don’t know why Northwestern and U of C sound cool on DPI. Of course, academic collaborations are difficult within the same institution, let alone among different schools. Partnerships launched with the best intentions splinter over research priorities, funding allocations, personality conflicts and myriad other fault lines.

Let’s hope such concerns don’t prevent DPI from realizing its full potential as a leading center for technological collaboration between academia and the corporate world. If DPI achieves that goal, benefits will flow not only to U of I and the local economy, but to all participating institutions. And DPI’s chances of success would improve significantly if Northwestern and University of Chicago participate.

DPI faces stiff competition from established tech hubs in other cities. Kendall Square in Boston—Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s model for DPI—leverages the talent and resources of Massachusetts Institute of Technology just around the corner. Stanford Research Park draws on similar assets from Stanford University in Palo Alto Calif.

At this point, DPI’s main academic partner is U of I, a top-tier computer science school. No offense, but U of I is a notch below MIT and Stanford in overall global prestige, and its computer science department in Urbana-Champaign is 135 miles from the planned DPI site on the Chicago River. Northwestern and U of C would add two world-renowned universities to the mix, while putting two key academic partners within easy commuting distance of DPI. Proximity matters; professors closer to the hub would be more likely to get involved at DPI. The same goes for students. Kendall Square, Stanford Research Park and Atlanta’s Technology Square are all within three miles of their partner universities.

Northwestern and U of C also would expand the range of expertise on offer at DPI beyond U of I’s acclaimed computing and artificial intelligence programs. Northwestern is driving ahead in areas such as nanotechnology, leading to breakthroughs like wearable devices for health monitoring. U of C brings strengths in quantum computing and genomics, as well as relationships with the Argonne and Fermilab national laboratories.

A wide technological scope makes a lab attractive to more corporate partners. Companies seeking access to the diversified brainpower of Kendall Square range from online retail giant Amazon to drugmaker Pfizer and aerospace manufacturer Boeing. Together, U of I, U of C and Northwestern would give DPI similar cross-industry appeal, helping attract more private sector investments and jobs.

Northwestern and U of C would bring DPI another essential resource: money. Both have multibillion-dollar endowments and legions of deep-pocketed donors. Those funding sources could reduce DPI’s dependence on the cash-strapped state of Illinois.

Northwestern and U of C likely have legitimate reasons for holding back on DPI. Every institution needs to look out for its own best interests. And there’s still time for them to negotiate acceptable terms of membership in DPI. I hope they do. In the long run, they’ll be better off helping DPI get to full strength.

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