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Gov. J.B. Pritzker leaves one of the University of Chicago quantum engineering laboratories during a visit in July. Pritzker is pushing to ensure a planned federal semiconductor technology center gets built in Illinois.

Gov. JB Pritzker leaves one of the University of Chicago quantum engineering laboratories during a visit in July. Pritzker is pushing to ensure a planned federal semiconductor technology center gets built in Illinois.

Owen Ziliak

Pritzker's aggressive bid for an $11 billion federal semiconductor center is part of a larger plan to make the state a high-tech hub

Illinois’ latest push to land a federal semiconductor technology center is just one cog in a strategic plan by state leaders to build up the state’s innovation economy — and turbocharge scientific discoveries — for decades to come.

The Chicago region and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were recently named by the U.S. Department of Commerce as two of 31 inaugural tech hubs for quantum technologies — a designation opening the door to as much as $75 million in potential federal funding and further solidifying Illinois as a quantum leader.

This fall, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative selected Chicago as the site of a new biomedical hub. And in mid-October, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan were awarded $1 billion in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for the Midwest Hydrogen Hub, a network that will vastly reduce carbon emissions.

With Chicago in the running for the $11 billion National Semiconductor Technology Center, a multi-university network of researchers and scientists are optimistic Illinois’ advances in engineering and manufacturing — and especially quantum research — will help them seal the deal.

So is Gov. JB Pritzker.

“I’m excited about the prospect. They don’t tell you how you’re doing in the process. They don’t say, ‘Hey, you guys are pretty good, but you really could improve this,’” Pritzker said in an interview. “We’re just making our best pitch, and we’re starting out with the best research — the best basic research in the nation on this subject.”

Moving beyond silicon

Announced in April by the Biden administration, the plan for the National Semiconductor Technology Center, or NSTC, is a key component of President Joe Biden’s CHIPS and Science Act. It’s intended to support U.S. leadership in semiconductor research, design, engineering and manufacturing — and to strengthen the country’s competitiveness in the field.

Pritzker in March launched an Innovate Illinois partnership — made up of business leaders, higher education institutions and elected officials — to secure funding through the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The initiative is in partnership with P33, the Civic Committee, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

There were multiple forces at play in giving Illinois a running start at a bid, including pushes from Rashid Bashir, dean of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering, and Penny Pritzker, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the governor’s sister.

Bashir approached Brad Henderson, CEO of P33, about the importance of moving beyond silicon, which is typically used to make semiconductors. The global semiconductor shortage during the pandemic highlighted the need to do so, he said.

“He’s the first person I heard connect the dots between quantum and microelectronics,” Henderson said. “Before that, quantum was like something that might happen 20 years from now. And what now has been validated is, in the next five years, those worlds are going to collide. And if we do our job well, they’ll collide in Illinois.”

‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

Penny Pritzker, who in 2021 was named to President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, referred to the president’s vision for a semiconductor center as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Henderson said.

At the White House, “all anyone is talking about is CHIPS and quantum and all these investments,” Henderson said. “She came back to our board and our team and just said, ‘What’s our plan?’”

Henderson said New York, Indiana, Ohio, Texas and Arizona are among the most prominent states to compete for the federal center. But Pritzker said he was told by Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm that work at Innovate Illinois is getting noticed.

The Democratic governor also said he believes Illinois has a chance at the center because of its focus on equity.

“You can’t build a tech hub without having every level of diversity, and that’s what the federal government is trying to get out of this,” Pritzker said. “There’s a lot more to do about STEM and getting people into the highest levels of research that are people of color and people who come from communities that have been disadvantaged. But we’re better at it than most states, and I’m excited about the prospect.”

‘Leapfrog everybody else in the world’

Bashir, a scientific genius, is the type of person who smiles when talking about complex matters like “nanostructures,” “photonic integrated circuits” and “heterogeneous integration.” He’s also skilled at explaining the importance of the center in layman’s terms.

Bashir says the center would allow Illinois to “leapfrog everybody else in the world” when it comes to new technologies and the integration of different materials within the CHIPS Act.

Although educational institutions tend to compete against one another, Bashir said the collaboration in Illinois is apparent, especially within the state’s quantum network and Innovate Illinois.

The effort to land the semiconductor center builds on work being done at the hydrogen hub, as well as at the Chicago Quantum Exchange, one of the largest teams of quantum researchers in the world, and the Discovery Partners Institute, an academic and research hub that’s building its permanent home in the South Loop. Bashir said efforts undertaken at those entities hopefully will show the federal government that “we are collaborating really well in the region.”

“I think we would like to make the case that we have this work going on, great work going on, and this tremendous expertise with national labs and universities that will allow us to leapfrog and continue thinking about future technologies that need to be integrated onto or with silicon,” Bashir said. “I think that’s what will make us really unique.”

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