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State looking for more collaboration on cyber initiative led by Virginia Tech
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State looking for more collaboration on cyber initiative led by Virginia Tech

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Virginia Tech might run the hub of a new state-financed cybersecurity research initiative, but a high-powered state committee warned the university not to forget about other colleges and universities across Virginia that are supposed to be partners.

The Virginia Research Investment Committee on Tuesday approved the release of $10 million budgeted for establishment of the hub in Northern Virginia. Tech won’t receive the funds until after it answers questions in June about how it’s involving other research institutions in the new enterprise and how much of its own money it is prepared to spend on the operation.

The committee also adopted guidelines for other research institutions to become certified as “nodes” in the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative. It will focus on specific areas of cybersecurity research and commercial applications in other parts of the state, including the Richmond region and Hampton Roads. The state budget includes an additional $10 million next year for research grants to support four or more regional nodes.

But while Virginia Tech officials promised to work with other institutions once the nodes are certified and established, state officials on the committee reminded them that the Northern Virginia hub is supposed to foster collaboration among universities rather than operate as part of one.

“CCI is not a university,” Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball said in response to a concern about bringing faculty from other institutions into an operation staffed by employees of Virginia Tech.

Currently, Tech plans to use about $5.5 million to hire six research faculty next year at the hub — three professors it already employs and three it is in the process of hiring. In the long term, it expects to require less state funding to sustain the operation as it brings in money from industry partners and federal grants, said Charles Clancy, interim executive director of the initiative at Tech’s research center in Arlington County.

“We will host employees of other universities,” Clancy said, primarily through faculty on sabbatical from their home campuses.

State urges interaction

But state officials say they expect more interaction between the hub and other research institutions.

“I would hope to see a little more of the collaboration at the hub site,” said Robert Vaughn, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, which conceived the cyber initiative, dubbed CyberX, in the budget last year.

Representatives of other institutions — Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University — expressed general support for the plan, but members of the committee fretted about perceptions that Tech is running the show.

“I have a reservation without having some understanding how this collaboration is actually going to happen,” Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said.

Layne said the state support is necessary for Virginia Tech to establish the hub, but he’s concerned that the message sent by relying solely on the university’s own employees “is a pretty strong one.”

He and Vaughn also asked for more information about Tech’s financial contribution to operating the hub, which will be housed in the Rosslyn research center that the university rents from the Virginia Tech Foundation. The proposed budget includes $3 million in state funds for the network office, including internships, and $1.5 million for hub operations.

Heywood Fralin, a former Virginia Tech rector and major financial benefactor of the university, abstained from the vote, but made clear that he wants the initiative to support startup companies that commercialize research.

“As a state, we don’t have a great history of support inside universities for these startup companies,” Fralin said.

Clancy said Tech is working closely with MACH37, a spinoff of the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology that acts as an accelerator for startup companies using advanced research on cybersecurity. “Engineers don’t always make good CEOs of startup companies,” he said.

State funding

The state has appropriated $25 million for the new initiative in next year’s budget, including about $5 million in capital funding for laboratories and other physical improvements.

The money is separate from the $16.6 million appropriated this year to establish a tech talent pipeline for universities to produce more graduates with degrees in computer science and related fields. That was part of the sales pitch Virginia used to land Amazon’s East Coast headquarters in Arlington.

The cyber initiative will draw on some of the $28 million the state appropriated last year for colleges and universities to boost degree production in fields that high-tech industries rely upon for skilled employees, but the strategic blueprint completed in December also calls for a $40 million boost in state funding in the future to increase its scale.

However, Ball said he would “not support future funding unless we see some demonstrable collaboration.

“This is not something we just started talking about.”

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