Blueprint coming together for college research initiative.
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.
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 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 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.