HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago is hoping a rich espresso and a nice glass of Chablis will help spark groundbreaking collaborations between disparate academic disciplines.
On Monday, the university opened the Big Ideas Generator in a former computer store at 970 E. 58th St. that has been converted into a social and work space for molecular engineers and business school professors to dream up quantum economics and other innovative collaborations.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is understand whether we can cultivate this whole process,” said Ken Olliff, executive director of Arete, the university’s initiative for fostering complex research projects.
For the launch, professors in anthropology and psychology sipped espresso and listened to neuroscientist David Freedman talk about his research in how the brain categorizes stimuli.
“Of course, the way we study this in the laboratory is to train monkeys to play video games,” Freedman said.
He said the experiment asked monkeys to categorize whether a flashing ball was inside or outside an invisible boundary.
“We’ve essentially trained monkeys to call balls and strikes,” Freedman said, comparing it to the strike zone in baseball.
Freedman and others chatted about the work during a wine tasting of chardonnays curated by English professor Richard Strier.
The hope is that Freedman would meet an academic with complementary research interests to launch into an innovative research project, and the Big Ideas Generator would be there with $15,000 to $100,000 in competitive grants to move the idea forward.
The center is part of a broader initiative within the university to build up structures that can latch onto the momentum of good ideas from faculty and staff and push more of them forward with funding and expert advice.
The university’s Chicago Innovation Exchange is set to open Oct. 16. The center helps faculty and students take business ideas and turn them into a company with expert advice and seed capital.
The Big Ideas Generator kicks off its programming with a lesson on making pour-over coffee on Oct. 13.
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