Cy­berX plans

Blue­print com­ing to­gether for col­lege re­search ini­tia­tive.

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL MARTZ [email protected]­dis­ (804) 649-6964

Be­fore Vir­ginia used the prom­ise of a $1.1 bil­lion in­vest­ment in higher ed­u­ca­tion to land Ama­zon’s new head­quar­ters in Ar­ling­ton County, the state al­ready was pre­par­ing what one law­maker called “a cy­ber moon shot” to boost univer­sity re­search in cy­ber­se­cu­rity and re­lated high-tech fields. Cy­berX is ready to launch. The Com­mon­wealth Cy­ber Ini­tia­tive now has a pro­posed blue­print for boost­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion re­search, at a new “hub” that Vir­ginia Tech plans to es­tab­lish in North­ern Vir­ginia and up to half a dozen re­gional “nodes” across the state that will re­quire col­lab­o­ra­tion of col­leges, univer­si­ties and in­dus­try partners in cut­ting-edge tech­nolo­gies.

“The blue­print is the end of the begin­ning,” said Theresa Mayer, vice pres­i­dent of re­search and in­no­va­tion at Vir­ginia Tech, who chaired a strate­gic plan­ning com­mit­tee that in­cluded nearly 50 col­leges and univer­si­ties, cor­po­ra­tions and busi­ness or­ga­ni­za­tions, gov­ern­ment and non­profit think tanks.

The pro­posed blue­print calls for an ad­di­tional $40 mil­lion in state fund­ing, on top of the $25 mil­lion ap­pro­pri­ated in the cur­rent two-year bud­get. The ini­tia­tive won’t seek ad­di­tional fund­ing in the cur­rent bud­get when the Gen­eral Assem­bly con­venes next month, but will look for ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial sup­port in the next two-year bud­get cy­cle and be­yond, Mayer said.

The col­leges and univer­si­ties that want to par­tic­i­pate also will be ex­pected to raise and con­trib­ute at least $20 mil­lion for re­search, as well as about $35 mil­lion a year af­ter the ini­tia­tive is fully es­tab­lished.

The blue­print for the ini­tia­tive will now go to the Vir­ginia Re­search In­vest­ment Com­mit­tee, or VRIC, es­tab­lished in the state bud­get two years ago to di­rect ma­jor state in­vest­ments in higher ed­u­ca­tion re­search projects that could lead to new com­mer­cial tech­nolo­gies and busi­ness ven­tures to di­ver­sify the econ­omy.

The com­mit­tee will re­ceive the strate­gic plan­ning doc­u­ment on Tues­day and be­gin the process of car­ry­ing out rec­om­men­da­tions that in­clude iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of re­gional nodes that will build on the ex­ist­ing strengths of re­search in­sti­tu­tions.

“A strong net­work of nodes in re­gions across the com­mon­wealth, part­ner­ing with and co­or­di­nated by a na­tion­ally rec­og­nized hub of re­search and en­trepreneur­ship in North­ern Vir­ginia, will cre­ate an ecosys­tem of cy­ber re­search, ed­u­ca­tion, and eco­nomic growth,” Vir­ginia Tech Pres­i­dent Tim Sands wrote in a cover let­ter for the blue­print de­liv­ered on Satur­day.

Rich­mond re­gion

One of those nodes is likely to be the Rich­mond re­gion, where Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity has played a sup­port­ing role in the strate­gic plan­ning process for Cy­berX, as the ini­tia­tive was dubbed when it first emerged in the bud­get the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee pro­posed in Fe­bru­ary.

“I think we’re well-po­si­tioned for this,” said Bar­bara D. Boyan, dean of the VCU Col­lege of En­gi­neer­ing, which was rep­re­sented on the blue­print ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee and key work­ing groups.

The ini­tia­tive will de­pend on sig­nif­i­cant new in­vest­ments in re­search by the state, the col­leges and univer­si­ties that con­duct it, and the in­dus­tries that will ben­e­fit from ad­vances in cy­ber­se­cu­rity and re­lated fields — ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ma­chine learn­ing and au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy to con­nect the “in­ter­net of things,” from ur­ban traf­fic sys­tems to med­i­cal de­vices im­planted in hu­man bod­ies.

Vir­ginia Tech

Vir­ginia Tech set a high stan­dard when it com­mit­ted to build a $1 bil­lion “in­no­va­tion cam­pus” in Alexan­dria as part of the state’s pack­age to at­tract part of Ama­zon’s HQ2 head­quar­ters with prom­ises to boost ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing of the high­tech tal­ent the com­pany needs.

“Vir­ginia Tech stepped up not only with ideas but re­sources to back their vi­sion,” said House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Chair­man Chris Jones, R-Suf­folk, who cre­ated the cy­ber ini­tia­tive with Sands early this year.

Jones called for “a cy­ber moon shot” to es­tab­lish a high-tech re­search en­vi­ron­ment sim­i­lar to the Re­search Tri­an­gle in North Carolina, where he said univer­si­ties col­lab­o­rate with pri­vate in­dus­try on “re­search, in­no­va­tion and new com­mer­cial tech­nol­ogy.”

Vir­ginia com­mit­ted $250 mil­lion to the Tech cam­pus, as well as $125 mil­lion for Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity, which plans to build an In­sti­tute for Dig­i­tal In­no­va­tion at its Ar­ling­ton cam­pus and cre­ate the first school of com­put­ing in the coun­try. The univer­sity, based in Fair­fax, will have to match the state con­tri­bu­tion with its own funds.

Ge­orge Ma­son Pres­i­dent Án­gel Cabr­era said the univer­sity is wrap­ping up a fundrais­ing cam­paign that he es­ti­mated has brought in more than $600 mil­lion to sup­port its ex­pand­ing mis­sion.

“We’re ready for it,” Cabr­era said in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day. “We’ve shown that we can raise money. We’ve shown that the com­mu­nity in North­ern Vir­ginia is ready to sup­port us. We’re ready for the chal­lenge.”

VCU re­search

VCU also is raising money to sup­port its high-tech re­search at the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for An­a­lyt­ics and Smart Tech­nolo­gies. The univer­sity al­ready has raised about $200,000 with a goal of $500,000 to $1 mil­lion by the end of next year, said Er­dem Top­sakal, chair of the Depart­ment of Elec­tri­cal and Com­puter En­gi­neer­ing and a mem­ber of the Cy­berX blue­print ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee.

Donors in­clude Mi­cron Tech­nolo­gies, which reached an agree­ment with Vir­ginia ear­lier this year to ex­pand its mi­crochip man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in Manas­sas to cre­ate 1,100 jobs in ad­di­tion to the 1,400 al­ready there.

“We can ac­tu­ally train the next gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents who are needed in the state of Vir­ginia for cy­ber­se­cu­rity pro­grams,” Top­sakal said.

One of the chal­lenges ad­dressed in the Cy­berX blue­print is dis­tin­guish­ing the ini­tia­tive from the state’s higher ed­u­ca­tion in­vest­ments for Ama­zon, which is look­ing for state help in fill­ing cur­rent and fu­ture jobs in com­puter sci­ence and re­lated fields. The search for a tech-tal­ent pipe­line led the com­pany last month to choose Ar­ling­ton and Long Is­land City in Queens, N.Y., for twin head­quar­ters that to­gether are com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing 50,000 high-pay­ing jobs.

In ad­di­tion to the Vir­ginia Tech and Ge­orge Ma­son ini­tia­tives for grad­u­ate-level ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams, Vir­ginia’s win­ning pro­posal in­cludes in­vest­ing more than $700 mil­lion over the next 20 years to ex­pand the num­ber of un­der­grad­u­ate de­grees in com­puter sci­ence and re­lated fields at in­sti­tu­tions across the state.

The Com­mon­wealth Cy­ber Ini­tia­tive is fo­cused more in­tently on cy­ber­se­cu­rity and re­lated fields. Its mis­sion is to “bol­ster the cy­ber­se­cu­rity tal­ent pool pri­mar­ily through in­vest­ments in Vir­ginia’s re­search ca­pa­bil­i­ties (e.g., labs, fac­ulty) and com­mer­cial­iza­tion ef­forts,” the blue­print said.

“Cer­tainly the suc­cess of each of them will con­trib­ute to the suc­cess of the other,” said Stephen Moret, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Vir­ginia Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Part­ner­ship.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing the blue­print, Mayer ex­pects the state to be­gin the search for an ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor to ad­min­is­ter the ini­tia­tive at the hub planned ini­tially at the Vir­ginia Tech Re­search Cen­ter — Ar­ling­ton. The two-year bud­get in­cludes $10 mil­lion to es­tab­lish the hub and an­other $10 mil­lion to hire re­search fac­ulty at node in­sti­tu­tions, as well as $5 mil­lion for lab­o­ra­tory and other cap­i­tal ex­penses.

VRIC also will de­velop stan­dards for iden­ti­fy­ing and cer­ti­fy­ing four to six nodes, a con­cept that evolved from the orig­i­nal hub-and-spoke model out­lined in the state bud­get. In­stead of pick­ing in­di­vid­ual univer­si­ties as spokes that would com­mu­ni­cate pri­mar­ily with the hub in Ar­ling­ton, the blue­print pro­poses to iden­tify re­gions with clus­ters of re­search in­sti­tu­tions that would work with in­dus­try partners on their ex­ist­ing strengths.

“Rich­mond is a very log­i­cal choice for a node,” said Boyan at VCU.

VCU’s health sys­tem

One of the re­gion’s prin­ci­pal strengths is VCU’s health sys­tem, which al­ready col­lab­o­rates with the Col­lege of En­gi­neer­ing and other parts of the univer­sity on bio­med­i­cal re­search. The tech­nol­ogy be­hind new med­i­cal de­vices also will re­quire cy­ber­se­cu­rity to pro­tect them, as well as pa­tient records and pri­vate in­for­ma­tion.

“Cer­tainly the fo­cus on the bio­med­i­cal sphere is one that could be very ex­cit­ing,” Mayer said.

Ques­tions re­main about how Vir­ginia Tech will co­or­di­nate with other univer­si­ties to gov­ern the ini­tia­tive.

“I still think there is not enough clar­ity about how this is go­ing to be gov­erned,” said Cabr­era of Ge­orge Ma­son, which is con­sid­ered a leader in cy­ber­se­cu­rity ed­u­ca­tion and re­search in Vir­ginia.

But state of­fi­cials re­gard the pro­posed blue­print as a high achieve­ment un­der pres­sure.

“Vir­ginia Tech was given an al­most su­per­hu­man task to de­velop the blue­print in a col­lab­o­ra­tive way in a very short pe­riod of time,” said Peter Blake, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the State Coun­cil of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion for Vir­ginia, which ad­min­is­ters VRIC and the state re­search in­vest­ment fund. “It did, I think, as good of a job as any­one could pos­si­bly have done.”

Top­sakal com­pared the plan­ning ef­fort to a mas­sive fac­ulty meet­ing “where you have all these pro­fes­sors who think they know the best.”

“When you have so many peo­ple and ev­ery­body wants a piece of the pie, it be­comes re­ally, re­ally com­pli­cated,” he said. “I think ev­ery­body’s voice was heard.”


The Vir­ginia Tech “in­no­va­tion cam­pus” is set to be cre­ated in Alexan­dria about a mile from the site of half of Ama­zon’s HQ2.

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