Applied Research Center's Opening Boosts High-Tech Hopes for Region

Hampton Roads is getting another big arrow for its quiver of high-tech attractions with the opening of the $18 million Applied Research Center.

The seven-story, 121,000-square-foot center, adjacent to the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, will be dedicated at 10 a.m. Monday. Guests include Gov. Jim Gilmore, other government officials and educators.

Simply called "The ARC" by the people who will work there, the facility is a business incubator, university research lab and tech-transfer center all under one roof.

The technology community paints it as a wakening regional powerhouse for economic development.

Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, says the $18 million was money well spent, not just for Hampton Roads but the entire state.

Federal labs like NASA-Langley Research Center and Jefferson Lab are great for growing smart entrepreneurs with hot ideas, Templin says, but that brainpower often leaves the area because it's tough for start-up companies to make it.

He says that as a result, the two labs are "net exporters" of ideas -- and commercial potential.

The ARC, which will buzz with university researchers in 27 state-of-the-art labs, aims to fix that: It will also have space and in-house technical expertise for fledgling companies.

Staff from Christopher Newport University, Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University and the College of William and Mary will conduct leading-edge research with the express mission of helping industry.

ODU, no stranger to economic development, sees involvement in the ARC as a natural progression for its job-creation efforts. Last year the school led the state in job creation, according to a CIT study.

In the ARC, the parties involved "have created more than a critical mass" for technology-based economic growth, says ODU engineering and technology dean Bill Swart.

"We expect we will have world-class economic development and research activity within the next five years," Swart said.

Many businesses complain that academic researchers aren't suited to handle the fast-paced, market-driven needs of industry.

"You get the 'ivory tower' types," admits Fred Dylla, a Jefferson Lab physicist and the ARC's business liaison.

"That's not the kind of faculty we're bringing here."

Another departure from traditional academia: the ARC schools aren't climbing over each other for state dollars -- at least not in the building. Researchers from different schools instead will collaborate, creating what NSU research director George Miller calls "a good cross-pollinization of ideas."

"You don't have a 'William and Mary Hall,' " says George Webb, CNU's dean of business, science and technology. "You have an 'applied research hall.' "

The Newport News Economic Development Authority picked up the tab for the futuristic-looking building on the 200-acre Jefferson Center technology complex. The city plans to rent space in the center at cost.

The city envisions the area around the center, mostly woods now, sprawling with high-tech companies in the next few years as business snowballs.

Much of the business world's interest will revolve around Jefferson Lab's Free Electron Laser, a much-anticipated zapper that could revolutionize manufacturing soon after it comes online this summer. Dylla says exploring the laser's material-altering capabilities will be a major function of the center.

Despite the center's name, both "applied" and "basic" research will be conducted there. Dylla mentions that Bell Laboratories didn't set out to discover the transistor in 1947. But the basic research behind it led to the grand daddy of today's million-transistor microchips and the Information Age.

"There's never a neat division between basic research and applied research," says Dylla, and no telling where the next great invention might come from. But he and others in the ARC collaboration hope there's now a better chance of it emerging from Hampton Roads.