R&D helps crack government market

Research work can open broader opportunities

One of the most stealthy, lethal and persistent weapon platforms in the Navy's arsenal is the submarine. But it has one fatal flaw: Communications is virtually impossible when the vessel is submerged and cruising.

"Radio waves do not go through seawater," said Greg Mooradian, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Apogen Technologies Inc. of McLean, Va. "Submarines, in most cases, have to put a metallic mast above the water to communicate. When the submarine does that, it is not covert, and it is not at speed and depth."

Researchers at Apogen hope to eliminate that problem by developing technology that lets submarines communicate with planes via blue-green lasers.

The project is an example of how taking on research and development work can be an excellent way for a company to break into or expand its reach in the federal market. Investing and pursuing research and development projects has risks, but developing technology that is highly desired by federal customers can reap large rewards.

From the Defense Department to the Army Corps of Engineers' Research and Development Center, opportunities to find projects and funding are broad. Federal spending on research and development in 2006 is about $134 billion, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

State governments and universities are also fueling the market. Politicians, industry and academia are working to expand the reputation of Hampton Roads, Va., as a hub for simulation and modeling work, said Jennifer Mullen, spokeswoman for Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

"It's really something the governor and general assembly have been pouring quite a bit of money into over the past couple of years," Mullen said.

The university founded the Virginia Modeling Analysis and Simulation Center, a not-for-profit collaborative of Old Dominion's College of Engineering and Technology focused on research.

The state's investment in developing the technology is well-founded, based on the success Orlando, Fla.-based Engineering & Computer Simulations Inc. has had in research and development related to modeling and simulation.

ECS has expertise in using video-gaming technology for simulation training solutions, said President Waymon Armstrong. One of its projects is a system to train police to work at vehicle inspection security checkpoints at the U.S. Capitol. The project is affiliated with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

"We started out with a proof of concept, and then we took it to a more advanced proof of concept and prototype," Armstrong said. "Now we're trying to get additional funding for that."

Inconsistent funding is one of the pitfalls of working in the research and development area, Armstrong said. Even after a successful prototype is made, an agency may have trouble getting the funds to go to production.

For the security checkpoint project, ECS teamed with the University of Central Florida of Orlando. Universities bring research expertise to projects as well as inexpensive student labor, he said.

Despite the challenges, research and development has been a boon for Armstrong's company.

"Every project we've successfully signed in Washington was an R&D project that eventually went to production," he said.

The company's combat medic training system went from a study to a proof of concept to a prototype. Armstrong expects that product to go to production next year.

The future of the security checkpoint solution is less clear.

"It's been well received, but now we're in that no-man's land of finding additional funding for it," Armstrong said. "The work that's been done can be reused for some other applications."

Those possibly interested in the technology include military bases and sensitive commercial sites, such as chemical plants, refineries and nuclear plants.

Because good technology will almost always find a market, Armstrong recommends working with the federal government on research and development when the opportunity arises.

"At first, it's intimidating when you look at this bureaucracy, but they are more helpful than you would believe. It shocked us," Armstrong said. "They know the little guys innovate, and they want to be there and help you succeed."

For its laser communications technology, Apogen approached Navy officials to see if there was interest in the concept, Apogen's Mooradian said. After that successful pitch, Apogen received funding to test its Submarine-Enabling Airborne Data Exchange and Enhancement Program (Seadeep). The test at San Clemente Island, Calif., was successful, and another test is in the works between an aircraft and a submarine submerged and at speed.

"What many technologists do is invent a solution, then go looking for a problem," Mooradian said. "We took it the other way; we spent a lot of time analyzing what the real problem was with the operation of submarines, and it's very clear if submarines can't get connected, they are going to go away."

Even with its research and development work, Apogen responds predominantly to standard requests for proposals for technology work, said Brad Speer, senior vice president of technology research and development. The company has found a lot of competition for a limited number of dollars. Because of that, Apogen has to be judicious about what projects to go after.

With years of experience in working with lasers, Apogen officials felt it was a ripe technology to go after.

"Because technology research and development is a fundamentally different world, you have to approach it differently," Speer said. "It's a very competitive world, so you have to get out in front of problems with good ideas. Then you can have a chance of being the company the government picks to go to development with."

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

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