The Research Park at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the most visible result of a significant shift in the history of the University of Illinois: the incorporation of economic development and innovation into its core mission.
The Research Park’s beginnings largely mirror the story of the University itself; it has sprouted a vibrant, multidisciplinary community producing highly influential technological advances – a reflection of the modernization of its land-grant roots in agriculture and engineering.
“The mission of the Research Park is much in collaboration with the mission of the University of Illinois,” said Ed McMillan, chairman of the Board of Managers for the Research Park and a University of Illinois trustee. “In addition to teaching – in addition to research and outreach – it’s also commercialization of technology.”
The Research Park was approved by the Board of Trustees in November 1999. The University established a separate University of Illinois Research Park Limited Liability Company in March 2000 for governance of the Research Park.Since the first building opened its doors in January 2001, Research Park’s growth and development has been a boon in multiple ways for the University.
Three of its most significant value propositions have been the opportunities afforded for faculty to develop and commercialize new technology in conjunction with their academic work; for established companies to collaborate with University of Illinois faculty and researchers; and for students to experience highly regarded internship opportunities.
The Research Park’s thriving innovative community is the result of an intentional transformation in the University of Illinois’ approach to entrepreneurial activity, one that encompasses the entire campus.
"It means many resources are there to support (entrepreneurs), through mentoring and financing and building, as well as promoting that this is a good activity to do,” said Laura Frerichs, Research Park Director. “We support and encourage entrepreneurship and taking what is being done in a research lab and translating that into a commercializable product.”
The State of Illinois provided funding to build theEnterpriseWorks early-stage tech firm business incubator in 2003, and the first tenants moved in during early 2004. It is a significant bridge between research at the university and commercialization of technology by faculty, staff and students. One of the Research Park’s strengths is that it is a place where the newest of startups settling in at EnterpriseWorks feels comfortable rubbing shoulders with established national and international corporations. Educational, training, social and networking events in the Research Park facilitate a community feel. Partnerships between companies are progressing at a rapid rate.
“That mixture of Fortune 500 and 100 companies, as well as smaller technology-oriented companies who wanted to become Fortune 500 companies as well as the mixture of new startup companies has been a great plan,” McMillan said. “Interestingly the larger, well-established companies accelerated the speed at which we could bring internships into the park. That really helped get more employment opportunities for students by getting those larger companies in early.”
The Research Park’s public-private partnership with Champaign-based Fox/Atkins Development has been critical to its success. The University first entered into a partnership with Fox/Atkins in May 2000 after a competitive bidding process. Fox/Atkins leases the land from the University, and has built the buildings – much of it customized – for the Park's high-tech tenants.
Fox/Atkins will continue in its role as the Research Park undergoes a strategic expansion. In the next phase of development on the east side of First Street growing into more than 160 acres of additional land. In May 2011 a new master developer agreement was signed to continue further development of the Research Park. The expansion is imperative for the University’s goal to advance economic development in the state, and the region at large.
“Our hope is that we’ll have that land totally utilized 10 years from now,” said McMillan. “We’re excited about the Research Park and we’re excited about the next 10 years.”