The burgeoning Chicago tech scene has a new player: the Department of Defense.
The Defense Innovation Unit, a military technology accelerator, is opening an office in Chicago to tap into the region’s technology ecosystem, from electric vehicles to artificial intelligence, and better wage 21st century warfare.
The office will be located at the Discovery Partners Institute on South Wacker Drive for a two-year lease beginning in June, the Defense Department announced Thursday. The commitment to developing a stronger tech pipeline in Chicago and the Midwest is long term, according to Michael Brown, director of the innovation unit.
The Defense Department brought in 100 new vendors last year, mostly from other regions, Brown said. The new innovation hub should significantly boost the representation of Midwest tech companies as Defense Department contractors.
“We brought in 15 from this region, and we’re looking to triple that over the next couple of years,” Brown said during the announcement Thursday at MxD, a digital manufacturing innovation center at Goose Island.
The Chicago office will be the fifth for the Defense Department, which has innovation units in Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin and at the Pentagon. Founded in 2015, the Defense Innovation Unit was established to find, develop and employ new technology to speed up adoption and enhance national security.
It is also being touted as a boost to Chicago’s technology scene, from academic institutions and innovation centers to startup companies.
“We want to open DoD as a viable market for business, to startups that today don’t understand they can do business with the department,” said Ryan Whelan, a U.S. Army Reserve major who heads up the Midwest region for the innovation unit. “The other thing that we want to do is accelerate the growth of these emerging technologies by creating new opportunity for commercial tech and accelerating its adoption in the defense space.”
Whelan said new technologies, from electric vehicles to agricultural technology, can strengthen national security and help the U.S. “fight wars better” as it competes with countries such as China, Russia and others.
Those sentiments were echoed by a full roster of Illinois political leaders, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and both Illinois senators, who were on hand Thursday for the defense innovation hub announcement.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said the innovation unit enables the military to leverage new technologies and level the battlefield.
“We’re putting our troops at risk of losing battles if we don’t invest in the technologies that will help us to compete in the next century’s battlefield,” Duckworth said. “Whether that’s an island in Southeast Asia or a piece of code that holds up our electrical grid, I know firsthand how important it is to have all of the resources possible when on the battlefield.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said the Chicago office will be a boon for the state and the Midwest, and a resource for national defense. He said the development of EV technology in Illinois, specifically the launch of the Rivian truck manufacturing plant in Normal, could find applications on the battlefield.
The Rivian facility, which launched production in September, is building $70,000 electric trucks and SUVs for consumer use.
“They can go straight from the assembly line in Normal to driving through rivers, even rock crawling up mountains,” Durbin said. “Just imagine how useful that vehicle could be on the battlefield.”
The Chicago defense innovation hub will occupy a small footprint in the Discovery Partners Institute offices, with room for five or six employees, the Defense Department said. It will likely need to find new quarters when the two-year lease is up.
The Discovery Partners Institute, a University of Illinois-led initiative, is building a 500,000-square-foot innovation hub to develop Chicago tech talent at The 78, a 62-acre megadevelopment slated for long-vacant land in the South Loop. The facility is slated to open on the south end of The 78 by 2024.
Whelan declined to say if the Defense Innovation Unit would follow the Discovery Partners Institute to its new digs. If it does, it may have a casino for a neighbor. Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming, which owns four casinos including Rivers Casino Des Plaines, is proposing a $1.62 billion riverfront casino at The 78, one of three bids in contention to become Chicago’s first gambling mecca.
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