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At Illinois Tech, energy innovation and entrepreneurship have new home

PHOTO BY -Steve Hall / Hall & Merrick

With a collaborative approach, the center’s leader aims to foster the development of ambitious clean energy solutions.

Illinois Institute of Technology opened the doors to a 70,000-square-foot, $37 million innovation center last month that will be home to ambitious industrial collaborations, where engineering students will partner with faculty and businesses to collaborate on big-picture ideas — from electric cars and grid management to the internet of things.

Leading the project is Howard Tullman, Chicago’s serial entrepreneur and longtime leader of 1871, another innovation center. He said that some of the highest priorities for the collaborative projects will be around the development of clean energy technology.

“We think that this center is a place to generate new ideas in the energy field and combine the students, the faculty, and industry,” Tullman said. “We think that the desire to support some of these things is out there in industry.”

The Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship is a futuristic building wrapped in several layers of an innovative material that help control how much energy is used and manage sunlight into the center.

In the past, Tullman has said that the school will be training people for careers that don’t yet exist, using technology that will be invented on the new campus. But what are some of the problems keyed up to solve?

Tullman said one is finding a clean solution for the so-called last-mile problem — the short trip from the subway or bus station to the pharmacy or grocery store. Tullman is looking for “a zero-carbon footprint to move people to hospital appointments and back, and to do all these last-mile things,” he said.

It’s a local problem for IIT and the surrounding community. In August, the Chicago Transit Authority announced that it was ending a bus pilot along 31st Street, a route that serviced a small group of students and seniors. Tullman believes that 31st Street could be an ideal testing area for autonomous electric vans.

“They would serve our students and our campus and connect the Metra and the CTA to larger parts of the Bronzeville community,” he said. “My interest is in these transportation solutions. But separately, we’re also looking at how do we generate and share excess capacity that we will have on campus with the rest of the Bronzeville grid.”

Tullman also wants to continue to develop solar generation around campus. IIT has solar panels on campus already, and Tullman said solar production will continue to grow.  “The whole Kaplan roof, which is flat — I am lobbying for deployment of additional solar panels up there.”

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