Cybersecurity research grants bolster new state initiative aimed at Amazon, other technology giants

BY MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 10, 2018

With the launch of a state initiative aimed at attracting Amazon and other high-tech companies to Northern Virginia, the timing couldn’t have been better for Virginia Tech and George Mason University to each receive a $250,000 grant to hire a top researcher in cybersecurity.

The two academic research powerhouses are likely to be big players in an ambitious new initiative, dubbed CyberX, that Virginia is launching in the budget that Gov. Ralph Northam signed on Thursday.

The project seeks to develop marketable technologies and a skilled labor force in cybersecurity to boost the state’s economy.

“Northern Virginia has over 30,000 unfilled cyber- and technology-related jobs, a number that will grow if Amazon chooses the Washington, D.C., region for its second headquarters,” state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said Friday.

“CyberX is an initiative born to meet the needs of Virginia technology-based industries by creating a partnership with Virginia’s colleges and universities that offer degrees in cybersecurity, data analytics and autonomous technologies,” said Jones, who conceived the plan with his staff and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands in February as part of a proposed budget that will become law on July 1.

Jones is a member of the legislative commission overseeing Virginia’s bid to land the Amazon HQ2 project — with a potential $5 billion investment and 50,000 new jobs.

He and other state officials would not comment on the contents of a state incentive package to land the coveted headquarters, but Jones confirmed the state would rely heavily on indirect incentives, such as investments in higher education and transportation improvements that Amazon has made priorities in the high-profile site search it began in September.

Virginia Tech will lead the CyberX project, known formally as the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, building on work already being done at the university’s Hume Center for National Security and Technology in Arlington County.

“We are pleased the budget signed this week supports higher education and industry’s efforts to address Virginia’s critical workforce needs in cyber and technology,” Sands said in a statement on Friday. “We are encouraged by the recognition that collaborative alignment of university research with industry’s needs can provide a path toward economic sustainability.”

Tech “is already a recognized leader in the cybersecurity sector,” he said, “and we look forward to working alongside our higher education colleagues from around Virginia on the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative to enhance and integrate research, innovation, and education in cyber.”

George Mason is likely to become one of the main spokes connected to the initiative’s hub, planned in Tysons Corner as the center of a research and teaching enterprise with a statewide reach.

“We will see how it shakes out, but I expect it to be a great place for scholars from Virginia Tech and scholars from George Mason to potentially get together,” GMU President Angel Cabrera said Wednesday. “Anything that creates a bigger critical mass of research in this area will benefit everybody.”

“Northern Virginia is really probably ground zero for cybersecurity in the nation,” Cabrera said.

Northam announced last week that Virginia Tech and George Mason will receive “eminent scholar recruitment” grants through the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund, which the Center for Innovative Technology administers and the state finances. The grants must be matched by a combination of university and private industry funds, and show potential for commercial use of cyber research.

“The goal of commercialization with potential economic impact is paramount,” said Nancy Vorona, vice president of research investment at CIT, based in Herndon.

Both universities have industry sponsors to help match the state funds. CACI International, based in Arlington, will contribute $125,000 for the partnership with Virginia Tech. Lockheed Martin Corp., headquartered in Bethesda, Md., will provide $200,000 for the project with George Mason.

Virginia Tech said the timing of the grant with the new state initiative is coincidental but fortunate.

“The Eminent Researcher Recruitment Program grant, while not directly related to the [cyber initiative] budget appropriation, provides funding to support the initiative by enhancing our efforts to attract another talented faculty member and researcher to Virginia Tech,” Sands said.

Tech spokesman Michael Stowe said the eminent researcher recruitment grant, overseen by Charles Clancy, director of the Hume Center, is not “related to or affiliated with” a similar grant to Kenneth Ball, dean of the Volgenau School of Engineering at George Mason.

However, Stowe added, “to the extent public universities in the commonwealth are investing in hiring high-caliber faculty in cybersecurity, that bolsters the cyber aspirations of both the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative and Virginia overall.”

The cyber initiative emerged publicly in the House budget proposed in February with $40 million.

The General Assembly scaled back the state investment to $20 million in the second year of the final budget Northam signed.

Virginia Tech would receive $10 million to lease space and establish hub operations in Northern Virginia.

The state research investment fund would receive $10 million to recruit research faculty at the hub and “spoke” institutions across the state. The budget also appropriates $5 million in existing state bonds for equipment and renovations.

The purpose is clear in the budget: “The Commonwealth Cyber Initiative shall be established to serve as an engine for research, innovation, and commercialization of cybersecurity technologies, and address the Commonwealth’s need for growth of advanced and professional degrees within the cyber workforce.”

The initiative emerged well after the deadline for public colleges and universities to submit applications for the eminent researcher recruitment grants — one of five programs funded through the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund at CIT.

The other programs include matching grants for a wider array of public and private higher education institutions, as well as research consortia such as the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, based in Colonial Heights.

The center is a partnership of five higher education institutions, the Crater Planning District Commission and an industry sponsor.

It received two grants, each for $100,000, which must be matched at least 1:1. Both grants involve biomedical research at Virginia Commonwealth University, which also received a $100,000 grant for another biomedical project.

“It’s a great shot in the arm,” said Mark Manasco, president and executive director of the center.

Altogether, CIT received 120 applications for the five programs under the commercialization fund, which is administered through a rigorous process that includes review by subject-matter experts and then by the Research and Technology Investment Advisory Committee made up of university, industry and economic development experts.

The committee makes recommendations to the CIT board of directors to decide. This year, the center awarded $2.7 million in grants.

“This strong turnout demonstrates the need for funding at a critical time in these research commercialization projects,” said CIT’s president and CEO, Ed Albrigo, in a news release from the governor’s office. “We look forward to monitoring the progress of the latest recipients as they generate significant long-term benefits for the commonwealth’s economy.”

The biggest grants went to Tech and Mason to recruit “eminent researchers” and establish research programs that university officials predicted will lead to even bigger contracts with federal defense and other agencies focused on cybersecurity.

“It is a very smart way for the commonwealth to plant seeds that are very significant for our economy,” said George Mason’s Cabrera.

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

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