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MSU high-tech center looking to expand market in light of decreasing funds

starkville — This month, what has been touted as one of the state’s premier high tech centers and true economic development gems, is beginning the end of its major federal support.

Now, say administrators with the Engineering Research Center for Computational Field Simulation at Mississippi State University, is the time to see just how much industry and state government are willing to support the project.

On April 15, the ERC begins the last year of being fully-funded by the National Science Foundation, the federal program that created it in 1990 to focus on computational field simulation (CFS), an area of research that analyzes geometrically complex physics associated with large-scale engineering design problems.

Through the use of high-speed computers, CFS has been able to replicate once costly, but traditional, methods used for fluid simulations such as wind tunnels for planes and cars and water tanks for boats and submarines.

And like the other 25 centers NSF has created around the country over the last 13 years, each has had 11 years in which to advance its technology and relationships, and therefore, make its future more permanent. Not all of them have succeeded.

After this fiscal year’s appropriation of $2.5 million, funding from NSF will drop considerably the final two fiscal years.

In fiscal year 1997 funding came from these four sources: NSF, $2.4 million; MSU, $1.3 million; misc. federal sources, $2.8 million; industry support, $2.1 million.

To make up the loss of NSF monies, Don Trotter, ERC’s director, believes the difference will have to come through improved support from state entities and from contracts with government and industry.

Trotter said he already has a commitment from MSU President Malcolm Portera to increase the university’s contribution by at least another $1 million. Beyond that, Trotter believes it isn’t unreasonable to expect some support from the state, particularly when it can support the center’s next goal of reaching out to industry. He doesn’t see why monies can’t be made available by an entity such as the state Department of Economic and Community Development to help Mississippi companies with their research and development costs.

“If a company came to locate here, we ante up all kind of incentives,” he said. “It seems there should be a pool created for research and the matching philosophy seems like the way to bridge that gap.”

Such a vehicle might help ERC better meet its goal of doing more work for industry. A growing track record shows that it isn’t impossible.

In just the last two years, ERC’s revenue from industry contracts has increased significantly, from $400,000 in 1996 to $1.4 million in 1997.

Ray Vaughn, ERC’s recently hired manager of industrial relations, is part of the center’s effort to take a proactive step towards tapping into new revenue streams, such as licensing some of the products created by ERC’s staff, as well as getting more contracts from government and industry from within the state and across the country. Currently, ERC has working relationships with approximately 18 industries and 20 government organizations.

Vaughn said already the center has procured roughly $5 million in new business from industry and government but the challenge will be great to build on that.

Mississippi, said Vaughn and Trotter, simply doesn’t have the sizable high-tech companies that either have a need for the computational research ERC can provide or can afford what it costs to crank up those super computers and pay an extensive staff of researchers.

Trotter said the cost for some projects can reach as much as $500,000, while others can be as little as $50,000, and the difference between those figures can really weed out the number of companies that are truly interested. But technology is rapidly changing and what might today be too expensive for a company could in a few years be achievable. That’s why he sees the ERC’s efforts to begin telling its story to industry as so important.

“What totally is impractical today, four years from now could be practical,” he said. “I believe we are at the threshold of being able to support those companies in a meaningful way.”

While Vaughn admits there are a handful of Mississippi companies that could immediately benefit from ERC’S services, there are plenty of smaller and mid-sized concerns he believes the center could help.

To help defray some of those costs for them, Vaughn said he is pursuing opportunities to team up companies with two different small business programs designed to provide capital for research development and technology transfer efforts.

Additionally, Vaughn said he is looking at taking the center’s work nationally and pursuing contracts with companies providing services for the government or even talking with major companies outside Mississippi. All of it is fairly new for ERC but essential to its survival, he said.

“Its kind of a new way of doing business that we haven’t done before,” he said.

One company that is a part of that “new way of doing business” is Laurel-based Howard Industries. The ERC has recently teamed-up with Howard’s Commercial & Industrial Group to tackle some efficiency and quality issues related to the company’s lighting products.

Wayne Causey, vice president of ballast engineering and purchasing said the ability to work with ERC has been vital to Howard getting these product improvements accomplished.

“It gives us her in Mississippi leverage over industries located elsewhere and the ability to compete globally,” said Causey, a former MSU electrical engineering professor.

Although ERC has a staff of nearly 100 engineers, Causey said it is simply not feasible or practical to try and do all the R&D internally, particularly when a resource like ERC is available in state.

“That’s the investment the state has to make in our future,” he said. “ERC is certainly a unique opportunity for the state of Mississippi. They are legend in the world for what they do.”

Next week: What’s an education without opportunities?ERC student workers find experience invaluable when job search begins.

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