Grants Help Area Efforts

Applied Research Center, CNU among high-tech beneficiaries


Research and Development Technician Brandt Robertson demonstrates an electron microscope Thursday at the Applied Research Center in Newport News. On the screen at right is a magnified deer tick. Adrin Snider/Daily Press

Five, 10, 20 years down the road, nobody knows what technologies will create the most jobs and wealth.

But Virginia thinks it has an inkling - no, make that a strong hunch. The state's Center for Innovative Technology is betting $6 million annually over five years on what it sees as three important areas: the Internet, lasers and plasmas, and new manufacturing techniques.

"It's not at always clear what the hot technologies will be," said Robert G. Templin Jr., CIT's president. "But even before we know for sure what the payoff is, it's important that we invest to keep up."

CIT has announced $2 million a year for each of three technology resource centers over the next five years. Depending on state financing, it hopes to open seven more - in seven other critical areas - over the next 10 years.

Two of the three newest centers will have a strong Hampton Roads presence:

The Internet Technology Innovation Center, designed to help businesses design Web sites and do business over the Internet. It will be a "virtual center," with Christopher Newport University as one of four university partners.

The Plasma and Photon Processing Center at the Applied Research Center in Newport News. The grant will allow the center to expand its scope beyond long-term research: It will be able to provide short-term advice to businesses on lasers and plasmas - "sprays" of light used to change the physical makeup of a material.

The third center is the Manufacturing Innovation Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. It will help businesses develop high-tech manufacturing facilities by simulating computerized processes.

"Virginia will now have a substantial competitive advantage in these areas," Templin said.

Not surprisingly, the new state money has been well-received at CNU and the Applied Research Center.

"It helps us big time," said Bill Muir, interim director at VECTEC. That's a public-private agency based at CNU that helps businesses create sites for doing business on the Web.

The new Internet center will "open" online later this year. It will be a cooperative effort among VECTEC and the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech University and George Mason University.

The main benefit, Muir said, is that a business coming to VECTEC for advice will have much more brainpower at its disposal. U.Va.'s Internet expertise is databases; George Mason's is modeling; Virginia Tech's, hardware; and VECTEC's, commerce. "With U.Va. and Virginia Tech, now we're playing with the big guys," Muir said.

At the Applied Research Center on Jefferson Avenue near Oyster Point, the money will have an equally dramatic effect, said Dennis Manos, the center's executive director.

The $18.4 million center officially opened in June. It's occupied by researchers from the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Christopher Newport University, Old Dominion University, the College of William and Mary, and Virginia Tech, as well as some from the private sector.

But so far, most of the research lined up at ARC is for longer-term projects. DuPont, for example, wants to see whether the laser light can be used to give polyester fiber a more natural feel. Three companies - Armco Steel, Virginia Power and Northrop Grumman - will test the laser's use in treating metals to improve resistance to corrosion.

Thanks to this week's grant, though, the center can offer short-term help to area businesses. The money will be set aside in a special pool that businesses can match and use a researcher for a few days.

Let's say you're a small maker of a high-tech part that you sell to Ford. But Ford tells you that it can get the part cheaper in South Korea.

Now you must redesign the part - but you don't have an on-site lab and maybe not many researchers. "So you go to the ARC building," Manos said. "We can reach out to ODU or somewhere else in our network, and we're going to find a professor and borrow that person for a week or two."

Maybe that researcher can help you use plasma technology or lasers to more efficiently coat or cut your high-tech parts, for example. And with that, "we'll immediately preserve a business in Virginia," Manos said.

"If we do this right, we can initiate a boomlet for the high-tech businesses. We can have something like a Silicon Valley, where suppliers move in and we get more jobs and higher-paying jobs, and the area leapfrogs."