Building University Technology Park At IIT

By David Baker
Vice President for External Affairs

IIT’s 1996 Main Campus Master Plan called for a “commercial zone” on the south end of campus. In 2000, as the City of Chicago decided to move its new police headquarters to near Main Campus and to take down public housing around IIT, President Lew Collens said, “Let’s do a tech park.” He turned to me and asked me to figure out how to do it. Needless to say it has had a big impact on me professionally.

By 2001, the key thinking behind the scenes became, “If we are going to build a tech park, who is going to pay for it?”

To begin financing, we turned first to the State of Illinois, which in 2001 committed $12 million to pay for the Incubator, an investment that inspired many others to get involved.

In 2002, after IIT sold the majority of its assets in IIT Research Institute (IITRI) to Alion Science and Technology, the south side of campus became available for the development of the park. IIT took control of two underutilized buildings and devised reinvestment strategies to renovate those buildings, which became the Incubator and Technology Business Center. None of this work required dollars from the Alion spin-off. Most important, we found a private developer-partner, Wexford Science and Technology, who bought one of the old IITRI buildings from us and agreed to develop it.

There was still one big hurdle: we had to guarantee the developer that we would occupy the building. Somebody needed to lease a quarter of the building in order for the developer to proceed with the renovation financing.

Fortunately, the late Life Trustee Charlie Shaw worked with Lew and me to help the Board of Trustees understand that this was an appropriate risk.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the park is its integration with IIT’s academic programs and vision.

Another critical step in the financing was obtaining Tax Increment Financing (TIF) status from the City of Chicago. It’s a funny story.

We had completed and sent the city our TIF application. Someone from the Department of Planning and Development called us to meet.

When we arrived, he said, “By the way, the mayor wants you to respect the green building standards, either by having a green roof or by meeting the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.”

I had been trying to convince the developer’s lawyer to pay attention to whether we needed to meet these standards, but he told us the project was a renovation, so it did not apply.

That wasn’t true. The man from Planning and Development insisted, “You’ve got to do this.”

Everyone from our team exchanged a look.

But then our architect said, “That’s no problem. I designed the building to meet the LEED standards; we just didn’t want to pay to submit the paperwork.”

We all exchanged a much happier look, got the approval, and moved forward with the project.

In November 2006, we held the grand opening of University Technology Park At IIT (UTP), which 250 people attended, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, other local politicians, and many individuals from the technology community. Several of those present said they never could have imagined something like this happening in this part of town.

Building UTP was a huge risk because it was possible that no tech companies would have wanted to move into the park. We’re confident of filling it, though. We project that by 2014 we will have 2,500 employees in 1.5 million square feet of office space in the park’s 15 acres. We now have a dozen technology companies on site that are hiring IIT students and taking advantage of IIT’s services to further their business.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the park is its integration with IIT’s academic programs and vision. Often technology parks are simply real estate deals. The land is further from the campus, and people are focused on the park largely for profit. Sometimes there is not much of a relationship with the university.

UTP is organized differently. We want to leverage the resources of the university for the companies and to have the park be a living laboratory for IIT. At the same time, UTP provides a great benefit for the students and faculty who can become personally involved with the companies.

Lew understood this when he both created the vision for UTP and supported me through the difficult negotiations to make it a reality. As a result, the university is positioned as a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship for years to come.