CIT Sponsors New Technology Centers

CIT Sponsors New Technology Centers

By Bob Starzynski
Staff Writer

Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology plans to help fund and launch four centers around the state in the next two years to develop and commercialize new technologies. The facilities, tagged technology innovation centers, will combine resources from universities, federal laboratories and companies.

The Center for Innovative Technology, a 13-year-old, Herndon, Va.-based organization that helps nurture the technology industry in Virginia, issued a request for proposal Nov. 1 seeking participants in the new program. There are no specific criteria for qualification and proposals will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Those who participate in the programs will have to sacrifice human and financial resources. But the technology development and business networking rewards are the payoff. CIT does not know what kind of response to expect from its calling, but officials don't foresee a shortage of interest.

"These centers are ... the seed corn for the next wave of technologies."

- Robert Templin , CIT

"These types of programs typically attract the necessary resources," said Robert Templin, president of CIT.

CIT has initiated 13 similar centers over the past decade, but none more recently than 1992. The difference now, said Templin, is the scope of the centers.

"We are trying to build on lessons learned from the earlier generation," he said. "We want these centers to be interdisciplinary in nature. And we want to draw upon resources from a variety of organizations, not just schools."

The earlier centers, 11 of which are still operating, were simply named technology development centers and were operated more or less exclusively by universities. Businesses and federal lab facilities were not intimately involved. Plus, the centers developed only new technologies and were not concerned with applying or commercializing those technologies.

Eileen Heveron, senior director for CIT, said the earlier-generation development centers created several important successes. The Fiber and Electro-Optics Research Center at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, played a role in developing some of the fiber optic technologies that helped make Washington a telecommunications power, she said.

And the Center for Semicustom Integrated Systems at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville was a major attraction for two microchip plants that have been built in the region in recent years. Other centers are currently housed at George Mason University in Fairfax and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Michael Carpenter photo
Private businesses have been spawned from the Center for Wireless Telecommunications.

-Mark Warner
Columbia Capital Corp.

"The Center for Wireless Telecommunications at Virginia Tech is doing internationally recognized work, and private businesses have been spawned from that," said Mark Warner, managing director of Columbia Capital Corp. in Alexandria, Va., and one of the wireless industry's pioneers.

Here is how one of the new technology innovation centers will work.

First, Virginia universities team up with companies and federal labs to develop a technology concept - next-generation Internet, for instance - and propose to CIT how they plan to develop and commercialize that technology.

If selected, the project will receive $1.5 million in state funding over the first five years. Companies and other resources are expected to add additional funding to the centers. Heveron estimated that for every dollar supplied by CIT, seven more dollars will be supplied by other sources, especially the participating companies.

Students, professors, company and government engineers work to develop the technology and explore possible applications for it. Then, other teams of students, professors and company officials create plans to roll out their technologies commercially.

Heveron said the schools benefit by giving their students applicable experience and creating a focused expertise at the university. Companies benefit by having pools of experts assist in bringing products to market and building a reputation with the institutions that supply the work force.

Such centers are not uncommon. Many states have created similar programs and usually call them centers of excellence. Also, like other forms of seed funding, these centers are not fail-proof.

The two technology centers that were shut down were not able to accomplish their goals, Heveron said. Each year, CIT reviews the centers' progress. If a center is performing well, CIT will offer up to $100,000 a year, even after the initial five-year program has ended.

The same is expected to hold true for the new-generation innovation centers. CIT has drawn up a plan for 10 new centers, with the first four launched by the turn of the century. Proposals from interested companies and schools must be submitted to CIT by March 1.

The only hurdle that remains for the innovation centers is the state funding. Heveron said that CIT asked the Virginia General Assembly for $2 million over the next two years. An answer is not expected back from the General Assembly and the governor's office until February or March.

Templin gives the initiative good chances of obtaining state funding. Although it must compete with other state government priorities, business interest in such projects has been high, he said. "These centers are seen by businesses as the seed corn for the next wave of technologies."

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