Chicago’s Digital Lab for ‘everyone from kindergartners to corporate executives’

Written By By LYNN SWEET Washington Bureau Chief Posted: 02/25/2014, 08:20pm

WASHINGTON — When Chicago’s Digital Lab opens on Goose Island, the planners envision it as a people-friendly open-to-the public place to showcase the latest manufacturing technology for business while hosting programs for kids.

“We want to make it a special place where people want to come and want to spend time, everyone from kindergartners to corporate executives,” Caralynn Nowinski told me. Nowinski, a medical doctor and biotech entrepreneur, is the interim CEO of UI Labs, the nonprofit University of Illinois spinoff managing the Digital Lab.

Chicago’s new, national, digital-tech manufacturing hub was officially announced by President Barack Obama at the White House on Tuesday, a bit anticlimactic since the news of the $70 million federal grant — leveraged by $250 million in state, city, university and corporate contributions — broke on Saturday.

The lab, the flagship for digital manufacturing in the U.S., is “going to focus on using digital technology and data management to help manufacturers turn their ideas into real-world products faster and cheaper than before,” Obama said.

“And it will include training to help more Americans earn the skills to do these digital manufacturing jobs.”

Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., all deeply involved in landing the grant, were beaming like three proud fathers of one baby during a morning briefing with top University of Illlinois officials, including Nowinski, who huddled with members of the Illinois congressional delegation in Durbin’s Capitol office.

Over the weekend, Nowinski emerged as a face of the lab — suddenly vaulted into the spotlight at a Chicago press conference Sunday with Emanuel and Durbin.

Nowinski, 35, a Wicker Park resident, was raised in Palos Park. After high school at Mount Assisi Academy in Lemont, she graduated from Northwestern University and picked up her MBA and MD from University of Illinois medical and business schools.

After working in biotech, Nowinski moved to corporate finance. She was the Senior Vice President in the Chicago Office of Sikich Investment Banking before becoming the Associate Vice President for Innovation & Economic Development at University of Illinois.

The Digital Lab will be housed at the former Republic Windows & Doors building at 930 W. Evergreen, a short stroll from Wrigley’s Global Innovation Center at 1132 W. Blackhawk, and adjacent to a research facility run by Mars Inc., the candy giant that owns Wrigley.

The Republic building interior will be extensively revamped — Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is already working on the design — with the aim to have it open by the end of the year.

The Digital Lab will consume some 50,000 square feet, with another chunk of space to be the home of the companion Illinois Manufacturing Lab, a State of Illinois high-tech project launched last year aimed at helping state industries.

“We’ll have offices, we’ll have classrooms, we’ll have meeting space,” Nowinski said. “We want to be the Town Hall. We want to be the place where people want to come to learn about the cutting-edge design manufacturing technologies.”

The Digital Lab headquarters will not be a place of static displays.

“We want this to be a place where we can showcase the latest equipment that is relevant to digital manufacturing,” Nowinski said.

The “wow” part of what people will see at the place will be massive “visualization walls.”

“People can visualize data, literally,” Nowinski said. “Imagine movies like ‘Iron Man,’ where you had building robots by moving your hands around a screen. That’s what we want people to actually make real in our facility.”

Said Nowinski: “This has got to be a cool place where people want to spend time.”


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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