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University of Illinois has tapped one of its own professors to direct its ambitious public-private South Loop innovation center, a massive endeavor aimed at sparking economic development and giving the state's largest public university a footprint in Chicago.

William H. Sanders, who led the department of electrical and computer engineering in Urbana-Champaign, will oversee the Discovery Partners Institute, a facility for conducting specialized research in computing and big data, food and agriculture, health and wellness, and environment and water. Sanders will serve as interim director, marking the first full-time senior position the university is devoting specifically toward launching the institute.

"It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Sanders said. "I'm excited about this effort because of the incredible potential and promise it has for economic development and for innovative research that has wide impact within the state, the nation and the world."

Sanders will lead and supervise all faculty and staff hiring, construction, program development, and new corporate and academic partnerships. Once it is up and running, it will employ more than 100 faculty members and accommodate more than 2,000 students each year, officials say.

Sanders will transition from the Urbana-Champaign faculty to the central university administration that reports to President Tim Killeen. A new department head for the electrical and computer engineering program has not yet been announced.

Sanders has taught at U. of I. since 1994 and has led the touted engineering department since 2014. His academic research focuses on computer system security and dependability.

Sanders also served as the founding director of U. of I.'s Information Trust Institute and as director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory.

University officials announced their plans for the innovation institute in October, with an endorsement from Gov. Bruce Rauner, who spent his pre-political career as a venture capitalist. University of Chicago and Northwestern University also signed on as inaugural partners.

The project also has backing from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois General Assembly leaders from both parties, all of whom were on hand in June when officials announced the project's first corporate partnership of Peoria-based OSF HealthCare. The university also announced it had finalized its first international partnership with Tel Aviv University, which helped organize Chicago events to connect Israeli and American entrepreneurs this summer.

Killeen also announced in June that the university opened an office for DPI in downtown Chicago. The university system is contributing $6 million over four years to the institute.

The state allocated $500 million in the current budget for DPI, though Killeen said his team is working to get all the funding formally released. State and university leaders have said they expect the project to generate significant private investment.

"We've had tremendous bipartisan support across the state," Killeen said. "This is something that everybody can see will benefit regions, the urban and the rural side, upstate and downstate, and position Illinois to lead the entire Midwest in the way that both coasts have benefited from their innovative capacities."

DPI is to be located within a 62-acre parcel being developed by Related Midwest, and sitting along the Chicago River and just south of Roosevelt Road and Clark Street. The development is one of the hottest anticipated in the Chicago area and would join the South Loop and Chinatown neighborhoods. The site also was one of five toured by Amazon during its visit to Chicago in March as the company mulls the location for its second headquarters.

Sanders assumed the role at DPI on Aug. 16. University trustees are scheduled to formally approve the appointment at their regular meeting in September.

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