Tom Pritzker woos big names for U. of C.'s big data

University working on virtual storage hub for genetic, medical information

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University of Chicago computer scientist Ian Foster pressed the clicker and up popped a map of the most sophisticated fiber-optic networks in the world.

On that map, at least, Chicago appeared to be the center of everything, a crossroads of information dwarfing Beijing, London and New York in importance.

Fiber-optic lines lace this city — because they are often laid along railroad lines. And the University of Chicago is working to use that geographic advantage to build the largest storage hub in the world for genetic and medical information, called the bionimbus cloud. The goal is to harness massive amounts of data and computing power to solve the riddle of diseases such as cancer.

Last week, Hyatt Hotels Corp. Chairman Tom Pritzker and his wife, Margot, hosted a fundraiser at the Park Hyatt Chicago to introduce the project to about 50 friends, including CDW Corp. founder Michael Krasny; Melvin and Ellen Gordon, the CEO and president of Tootsie Roll Industries, respectively; Crate and Barrel founders Carole and Gordon Segal; Wheels Inc. Chief Executive Jim Frank; and Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

This was an all-star cast of Chicago's business leaders, hand-chosen by one of their own, for an evening of education and, presumably, fundraising. If you've ever wondered how the wealthy are wooed, here was one special example of how it's done.

The Pritzkers began hosting annual dinners for University of Chicago Medicine, which includes the hospital, medical school and a biological sciences division, in 2006 — but this one was different. Tom Pritzker, a university trustee, wanted a smaller affair. He helped pare down the guest list from the usual 150; personally invited guests via email; selected the presentation format so everyone could sit on plush sofas rather than at banquet tables; and insisted the university's doctors and researchers continue the conversation over dinner afterward.

"The idea (for the dinners) was that we needed to better integrate the University of Chicago with downtown Chicago, civic leaders, community leaders, commercial leaders," Tom Pritzker said in an interview. He later added: "Frequently communities will get too parochial, whether it's researchers or business people or any other group. They'll tend to just keep seeing the same people they see all of the time."

Seating researchers at every dinner table was one way to break that pattern. The event became more of a seminar than a party. Terms such as a "zettabyte" — an amount of storage capacity that has 21 zeros in it — were uttered.

"Frankly, I've walked away from any one of the dinners really excited about whatever the topic was because it's like a window into the future," Pritzker said. "You get to sit here, and for two hours someone is painting a picture for you of what the world is going to be like 10 to 15 years from now."

The first innovation behind the medical data hub was the sequencing of the human genome. Scientists can translate a person's genetic code into a unique, multibillion-long combination of the letters A, T, C and G. More recently, scientists have built computers and algorithms that enable these sequences to be analyzed in bulk.

"So we'll sequence thousands of tumors, understand the genomic variations and use that to guide how we diagnose and treat cancer," said Robert Grossman, a professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in big data. "This is one of the techniques that will be at the center of personalized medicine."

A typical study now might involve analyzing the DNA of 50 to 100 patients. "Precision diagnosis" like Grossman described will require analyzing data from 5,000 to 10,000 patients — and eventually, 500,000 to 1 million patients. In two weeks, Grossman will announce that the university has the computing power to analyze all the genomic data of up to 10,000 patients.

"It costs about $1,000 to sequence a patient," Grossman said. "So 1 million patients would cost about $1 billion to sequence."

Frank of Wheels Inc. and his wife, Karen, have pledged $10 million, $9 million of which will go toward launching and hiring a director for a proposed Institute for Computational Biology and Medicine at the university.

"We don't have the software," Grossman said. "We don't have the statistical algorithms. And we don't have the infrastructure theoretically or practically to analyze (1 million patients), and that's the scale we need to tease apart all of the cancers at the level of understanding we would like."

Grasping the magnitude of the data the medical community needs to collect and analyze is almost impossible.

But understanding a railroad hub — and the transport of grain, meat or oil — is not.

"Business, innovation, discovery, jobs still depend on taking raw materials and turning them into refined products," Foster said. "Often, nowadays, the raw material is data and the refined material is knowledge."

Search starting at Chamber

A number of Chicago's elite civic institutions will have new leaders by year-end.

Top posts are open at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, where longtime CEO Jerry Roper, 72, announced his retirement last week; World Business Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking a replacement for retiring President Rita Athas; and the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, where Chief Executive Kevin Willer has announced his plan to transition to the venture capital industry full time.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs announced that U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder would take over for President Marshall Bouton, who served in the post for 12 years.

Many of these groups operate at the intersection of business and government, so the transition from the Daley administration to the Emanuel administration accounts for some of the change. Scott Swanson, the chairman of the chamber and the regional president of PNC Bank in Illinois, cited economic pressures.

"We're entering another chapter as we've come out of the recession," he said in an interview Friday. "So I think as a consequence all organizations are evaluating how they can be more effective. The competition — I don't care if it's coming from Texas, Florida, Tennessee or Beijing — we've gotta be competitive, and this is that opportunity to step back."

Swanson said the chamber's search, which will be conducted by executive search firm Spencer Stuart, will focus on candidates from Chicago, including the chamber's chief operating officer, John Carpenter, a retired American Airlines executive.

He said the succession planning process started at Roper's "encouragement." Asked whether the chamber would select a retired executive, Swanson said the requirement is that the individual be well-connected in Chicago business circles.

"The most significant civic leaders in Chicago today continue to be peers of Jerry's," Swanson said. "So we're not in an environment where there's an evaluation about whether there needs to be a generational shift."

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential

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