Newswise — With the help of some in the business community, the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories have been increasing their engagement with local urban economies to maximize their potential as drivers of innovation and economic growth.

John Flavin, veteran entrepreneur, knows all about creating innovation. He started a small biotech company for drug discovery in the 1990s with his brother just after graduating college. By the time their first entrepreneurial venture was sold, they had amassed some 300 employees.

“We funded our startup with a small business innovation research grant and learned and adapted along the way until our small business evolved into a 110,000-square-foot facility,” said Flavin. “We had our fair share of challenges, but key to our success was knowing that people needed what we were selling.”

Flavin applies these unique experiences as Executive Director of the Chicago Innovation Exchange (CIE), Chicago’s newest innovation hub, headquartered on the University of Chicago (UChicago) campus. His job: to be the bridge connecting researchers to the vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists throughout Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. To do that, CIE has to be different.

With $20 million in funding from UChicago’s Innovation Fund, CIE draws together the research expertise of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, engaging the Chicago market for the first time through office spaces in the hub. CIE also houses the combined resources of UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, the Center for Technology Development and Ventures (UChicagoTech) and private-sector companies, merging scientific expertise with business savvy.

Situating itself as the premiere supportive framework to help researchers from idea conception to market readiness, CIE serves as a single point of contact that leverages the combined expertise of Argonne, Fermilab and the University of Chicago to create and support small businesses originating in the labs.

“CIE is shifting the innovation paradigm, especially at the startup phase,” said Flavin. “We’re connecting innovators directly with the customers, investors and end-users of their future products. This whole process is geared towards re-focusing how they iterate their ideas in a way the market can understand and invest in.”

But to connect innovators with potential investors is one thing. Having a physical presence, a seat at the table where ideas are being shared, is another.

In addition to being the only metropolitan area in the country with two national labs, Chicagoland is home to a robust and diverse business community and several universities with strong science/tech/business programs – including the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

National labs can be agents of regional growth for these businesses to accelerate the adoption and exchange of technology, but they rarely have a presence in the coffee shops and board rooms where these exchanges are taking place. As experts-in-residence at CIE, Argonne and Fermilab will have the charge to engage with and influence that business community.

“Having a presence in a metropolitan area means engaging with the actors, resources and exchanges of the economy in a dense place,” said Mark Muro, senior fellow and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “There are industry signalers about crucial problems, market analysts, suppliers and tons of small businesses, all of them thriving in this dynamic and information-rich entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

The vitality of a metropolitan area is contingent upon how diverse and accessible advanced firms and industries are in the area. These clusters include the startup companies that share information with these firms, facilitating innovation exchanges.

CIE features a physical space, located on 53rd street on the University of Chicago’s campus that includes a coffee bar, classrooms and open work and event areas. The space can support the collaborations of up to 300 innovators, mentors and partners surrounded by a community where restaurants, retail stores, hotels and bars all serve as areas to sit, collaborate and innovate.

CIE offers membership for free to students and for $50 per month to other innovators from UChicago faculty, staff and the local community. Membership includes all the programming, the co-working space, workshops, guest speakers and office hours with experts in residence.

“CIE is here to attract talent and retain companies through our programming and making meaningful connections,” said Flavin. “In the future, we hope our model of innovation transfer makes larger companies take a look at what we’re doing here on the South Side of Chicago and want to co-locate into the area.”

With this, its first step into a major metropolitan area, Argonne is situating its expertise in between the world of research and the world of business, where it can engage with the requirements and objectives of industry at regular intervals when shaping a technology.

“I think the urgency of both the research and business communities will allow each to learn to work well with the other,” said Muro. “Industry needs breakthrough technologies and the labs need to share their contributions with a wider audience. Here, there is a clear alignment of interest.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. Argonne is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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