Illinois VentureTech, one of the nation's most ambitious technology-based economic development programs, is beginning to pay off, according to state officials.

Launched in 2000, the five-year program will plow $2 billion in state resources into education, research and development, health sciences and biotechnology, and information technology programs.

Illinois now is reaping a return on those investments in the form of top rankings in technology-related surveys, growing activity in business incubator facilities designed to nurture start-up science and technology companies, and increasing commercialization of ideas spawned in the state's research universities.

Illinois' chief technology officer Mary Barber Reynolds said VentureTech is changing how companies - particularly science and technology firms - view the state. Among other things, the broad-ranging initiative earmarks $650 million for government IT projects and directs another $800 million toward education and research-and-development initiatives.

"The Illinois business community is very enthusiastic, which wasn't the case a few years ago," she said. "They didn't see investment. When they see investment, they make additional investment."

The initiative pumped resources into government IT programs such as the Illinois Century Network, which connects more than 5,600 government agencies, universities, colleges, schools, libraries and museums. It also helped Illinois launch one of the nation's first statewide implementations of public key infrastructure (PKI) technology, designed to allow citizens, businesses and others to securely deal with government agencies over the Web.

Those projects and others propelled Illinois into a first-place tie in the 2001 Digital State survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government, the knowledge-management and research division of e.Republic. The annual poll ranks all 50 states on their use of technology to improve government services. By contrast, Illinois finished next to last in the 1998 Digital State survey.

Furthermore, Illinois now leads the nation in the number of high-technology jobs, according to a University of Minnesota study. And it's the country's second-best market for information technology jobs, according to Computerworld magazine.

"From my perspective, that's recognition that the state is moving in the right direction," said Reynolds. "It's simply an outside view that the state is making some strategic investments in the right place."

Commercializing Research

VentureTech is having a similar impact at Illinois research universities, said David Chicoine, vice president of economic development for the University of Illinois. For example, technology-licensing revenue - an indicator of how effectively research is being turned into marketable products - is growing at a 20-percent clip throughout the university system.

Over the past two years, the University of Illinois revamped its technology management processes in an effort to put more research into the hands of established and start-up technology companies. Furthermore, the university is working more closely with Northwestern University and the University of Chicago to expose new research to companies and investors interested in commercializing it.

"We don't nearly have the technology-based growth in the Midwest, even though we've got the horsepower with the public and private universities. It's just that other elements have not been brought together like we've seen on the coasts," said Chicoine. "Now, people are thinking differently about that. We now have people looking to us as a source of technologies for commercialization, and they're looking to us aggressively."

The university also is attempting to direct more technology licenses to local companies. "We've taken an 'Illinois first' licensing approach," he said. "We want to make sure all of the Illinois companies are connected with us and we're connected with them, so they have full information about the technologies that are potentially licensable from our campus."

While licensing changes deliver immediate gains, Chicoine expects VentureTech's investments in research facilities to generate long-term benefits. For example, the initiative is funding development of the Rare Isotope Accelerator Science Center at Illinois' Argonne National Laboratory and the Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly