Ross Wilkers


What Octo CEO's gift to Virginia Tech says about Amazon and innovation

This certainty remains for the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region in a period where “uncertainty” is a catch-all term for anything and everything: Amazon is still coming to town.

More specifically to the portion of Arlington, Virginia now known as National Landing that will host the future “HQ2” second headquarters, which many business leaders in the region see as becoming a magnet for more technology companies and talent to follow.

One leader in that group is Mehul Sanghani, founder and CEO of government IT company Octo. Academic institutions are also among the hopeful like Virginia Tech, which is building an Innovation Campus in Alexandria nearly two miles from HQ2.

State officials have cited the campus as a reason Amazon chose Northern Virginia and is partnering with VT.

“There is a lot of talk certainly about Amazon and it will be stimulating demand for this market here in D.C., but don’t underestimate the fact that D.C. is an extremely attractive market and we’re going to bring in talent outside the region,” Sanghani said when I asked for his broad thoughts about Amazon's arrival here.

Once fully stood up in 2024, the $1 billion Innovation Campus will work toward a goal of preparing 31,000 computer science graduates over the next two decades to fill the pipeline of tech talent. The campus will also be the centerpiece of a 65-acre innovation district.

Both VT alums themselves, Mehul and his wife Hema gave a $10 million gift to the university to support, that effort. The university is in turn renaming a data research center at the Innovation Campus to the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics.

So there is certainly the personal element for Sanghani, who grew up in VT's home city of Blacksburg, Virginia.

“To be able to do something like this and have that type of legacy, and maybe some other kid will long after I’m gone see this sign or this plaque and wonder about my impact and how they can have the same impact,” he told me.

There is also the business element and this challenge companies like Octo face that he wants to help in -- building out the next and future generations of technology talent.

Artificial intelligence and the adjacent area of data analytics will be two main focus areas for the Innovation Center. Sanghani cited AI as an example of one technology area that is seeing this kind of challenge -- the scope is vast and wide, which means the expertise is distributed across a large organization like a university or inside government.

But at the same time, that expertise could also be siloed in many respects. VT for instance has data analytics courses in its business school, while the biotechnology program also has an AI component. The school of mechanical engineering has a robotics program as well.

“All the employers were a little frustrated and challenged with trying to understand the differences in the skill sets,” Sanghani said. “What this supports is not only the university to consolidate their approach to how they aggregate professors.”

Location is also everything for the center and its focus on AI.

“Washington is the seat of policy for how AI is going to be leveraged,” Sanghani said. “You have things relative to policy and ethics, and they want to incorporate elements of that into the program.”

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also connect with him on LinkedIn.

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