Newport News - Eleven years ago on a plot of land on Jefferson Avenue, a handful of scientists, government and city officials gathered at a groundbreaking ceremony for a U.S. Department of Energy research laboratory. Each dug in their shiny gold-tipped shovel, pulled up a piece of sod and tossed it to the side. They then shook hands and smiled for the camera.
At that time, it was doubtful those at the ceremony knew exactly what would come from that ceremony. Many knew of the facility's economic benefits but probably didn't realize that a $4.2 million investment from the City of Newport News would generate $200 million for the local economy. Others understood the lab would be home to high-level nuclear physics research, but they didn't realize that research would lead them to develop a one-of-a-kind laser.
Few though, could have predicted the nuclear physics research laboratory would generate the international interest it has from both the science and business world. Nor could they envision the spin-off interest in Hampton Roads the lab would stir up.
One man, Dr. Hermann Grunder, however, did have some idea of what was to come. Still, his early ideas and what is known today as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Jefferson Lab for short, couldn't be more different.
"I knew this was going to be a research facility, and I knew that it could be a leader in our disciplines, but I couldn't have told you that we would be doing the things we are with lasers," Grunder, the lab's primary architect and director, says. "And, I couldn't have told you that this facility would be generating the interest from private industry that it is.
"But that is what good science and good research labs are all about, progress - research leading you in new directions."
One of those new directions should be charted sometime this summer, as the lab prepares to debut the free electron laser (FEL), the most powerful manmade light source ever developed for practical use. Strangely enough the FEL is, at best, of minimal use to the government. Instead, the laser's capabilities and applications - everything from preventing rust and corrosion to increasing flight speed - are being steered toward private industry. The hubbub created by Jefferson Lab has some in Hampton Roads saying the region could evolve into a research and development destination.
The growth is already being fostered by economic cornerstones of the region that see the potential of the technology industry: Newport News Shipbuilding, the U.S. Navy, the NASA Langley Research Center, the area's colleges and universities, and even the Port of Hampton Roads. Jefferson Labs, under the direction of Grunder, has taken its position among those entities.
Grunder, a textbook type-A over-achiever renowned for his work in nuclear and accelerator physics, has positioned the lab to act as a catalyst for research, learning, technology transfer and growth of private industry seeking to benefit from the FEL, even though the laser is not yet finished.
Grunder's direction has allowed Jefferson Lab to become a magnate for private industry. Because Newport News has benefited so nicely from Jefferson Lab, the city has committed to spending $14.2 million to help develop a 200-acre office park tied to the lab. Private industry, however, may derive the most benefit from the lab's work.
"We do the hard part, or we help them (industries) with the hard part" Grunder says.
Among those companies interested in the FEL's commercial applications are Northrop Grumman, DuPont, Virginia Power, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) and the Navy.
"To these companies, all we can say is 'welcome' and do so with open arms." Grunder says.
Gunder recently spoke with the Virginia Business Observer on the influence Jefferson Lab has on the region and what its future here will be.
What constitutes a successful breeding environment for technology?
Well, for any growth, you need some core elements, which we have here already: a transit system, a business climate, a capable work force, education, capital, etc., etc.
But for technology to grow you need some common denominators. You need institutes of higher education, a university typically. You also need a lab or labs that is a leader in its discipline or that has a high R&D complex. Then you must have communication between them.
None of these elements will benefit the other without ideas sharing. So then you need a network. A source, a place where information flows freely between people. And I'm not talking about the Internet here. I'm talking about face-to-face interaction where people meet and talk. If you have all these things, then there is a receipt for success.
Is the end result of that recipe, similar to the growth of Jefferson Labs is fostering with private industry and the FEL project?
Yes, that is what you hope for, but the pieces have to be in the right place, or industry has to see that they will be in the right place. You have to give industry a reason to come and once it is here, it has to have the right things to stay.
Hampton Roads appears to have lots to offer prospective technology businesses, are we poised for growth?
Yes and no. Yes, we have these things and yes we have room to grow. But no, we are not boom town yet, or really even close, because not everything is working in unison like it needs to be.
For example, look at the institutes of higher learning here. None are in the top 10, on the level of an MIT or Stanford. OK. What we do have are several good colleges and universities. And if they come to work together, they can become the equivalent to a single large university that is versed in many disciplines.
You also must have the various parts of the region work together. Right now, some are busy drawing borders and others are trying to erase them. So you have to have cooperation.
If you have this, the ideas will flow.
There is not a single university that knows it all, they specialize and more importantly, they all share information. The various areas of Hampton Roads must act the same. None are good at it all, so they have to begin saying 'we can do this, then go there for that.' Eventually, we need to have a clearinghouse that does all of this. When we have this we will act like a region. We need one stop shopping, for someone to be able to pick up the phone and dial up Hampton Roads high tech.
And this may be the most critical part, in this information sharing. The ideas have to flow freely without the roadblocks. When they do, then you need an R&D environment where you can put meat on these ideas.
What, if anything, keeps Hampton Roads from growing its technology industry or its R&D capability?
We have the resources, but we haven't been able to pool our resources in such a fashion that the multi-university approach is equivalent to that of an MIT and we are a fair bit from that goal. Right now, we also have lower expectations. We can't expect to be the world's leader right away. Our standard of living, in some ways is lower, our salaries are lower and there are accompanying economic factors. But wherever you are on that curve you always have people who are happy because they can make a good living.
We also have a number of infrastructure issues to overcome. We need to be looking for ways to act as one. You also have the issues of attitude, risk, resources and the economy. What is hard is changing attitudes. We need to be collaborative instead of competitive. If we can overcome these problems, and it will take some time, we will be able to create an environment where a number of entrepreneurs can come and function, then we start climbing up the ladder. It takes an enlightened state.
Can Hampton Roads be considered R&D (research and development) country?
No, this is not R&D country, but it has a gradient to it, and we are making some steps in that direction. For example, we have developed the ARC (Applied Research Center) building as a center for research and development. There are four universities represented there and a number of companies putting up offices there. This is an electric atmosphere for ideas and it is important to have that atmosphere for creativity.
For R&D to thrive, you need technical assistance for those inventors, entrepreneurs who can't make or take the next step. This is where the institution with the high R&D knowledge, like Jefferson Lab, comes in. You always have people who have developed a product...but when you get them in an R&D atmosphere, they can meet people who know the answers. You need universities that teach the latest in technology, that manpower is essential. Then when you add that R&D muscle, you have an industry. It is simple.
Is this where Jefferson Lab comes into the mix?
Yes, much like NASA Langley. NASA is part of a national network of ideas, problem solvers and people that can make ideas happen. We act in the same way. We have access to researchers all over the world, they are either here or we can find them.
The problem that plagues much of the technology field here and elsewhere, is that you have idea people who can't make the idea happen. It is a very big jump. We also have the know how, we have the ability to test and refine over and over. So yes, we are an engine for idea development.
What is private industry's role in helping to strengthen the position of Jefferson Lab?
I'm not sure if they can strengthen our position, that is up to us, but they stand to benefit from what we do, from the technology we develop and we stand to benefit from their success. We are primarily government funded, so we are not in business so to speak. Our mission is to provide existing technology, encourage industry to develop product, maybe help them set up shop and watch them go to work. We have a number of industries who are interested in what we are doing and keeping an eye on us and that is probably the way it should be.
Many are contributors to construction and others donate equipment. So industry is important in our growth. The more industry we attract to the area because of what we do here, the stronger our position in the future. Private industry can also help in terms of outreach, education and the technology transfer mission. We provide the spark for development potential. Capital interest comes together and then we have something. The FEL and industry can grow together, we are already seeing with the DuPonts and so forth that are interested in the FEL.
Where is Jefferson Lab in terms of its development?
Our nuclear physics mission is gangbusters. In that area and many others we are poised for growth. The nuclear physics and FEL mission and user facilities for industrial, defense and basic research will be steadily developed. In the next five years we will see a substantial, major power upgrade to enhance our capabilities. A good lab has more than just bare research facilities, it has core competencies in the fields it serves. So you will see us build our material science knowledge along with the universities. We will hire more scientists in various related disciplines.
Will Jefferson Lab ever outlive its use?
It hasn't happened yet, it could happen within the next 10 years at some other labs, but not here. Many of our missions are finite, nuclear physics, FEL, material science, the atomic molecular mission - there is no end to what we can learn. I would be surprised if in 40 years we're still in those missions. As you go through these missions, many other things become evident. New missions appear. So there you have it, we have evolved, the mission has taken another course. So for Jefferson Lab to keep its doors open, we must evolve.
Does what we are doing now have an end?
Absolutely yes, it is the mark of progress. Labs should be closed down if they missed to see they are finite in life. It's the survival of the fittest and most creative. If you aren't leading the world in a couple of areas, then you have no business in the laboratory business.
Submitted: Sunday, May 31, 1998 - 11:00pm