RICHMOND — Virginia Commonwealth University will take the lead in creating one of four regional “nodes” in a new statewide network to boost higher education research in cybersecurity, create work-study opportunities for students in the field, and foster new commercial technology to drive economic growth.
The Virginia Research Investment Committee voted on Tuesday to certify four regional nodes to connect with a Northern Virginia research hub Virginia Tech will lead as part of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, financed by $25 million included in the two-year state budget last year.
VCU will lead one with the University of Virginia, Longwood University, Virginia State University, and J. Sargeant Reynolds and John Tyler community colleges.
“We have a chance to start something new and definitely a culture of collaboration,” said Jeff Reed, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, and interim executive director of the initiative.
Erdem Topsakal, chairman of the department of electrical and computer engineering at VCU, will oversee the regional effort to create a startup plan and budget, and look for an interim leader for the node.
“Things are good, it’s exciting!” Topsakal said. “We are working closely with Virginia Tech.”
In addition to operating the hub planned in Arlington County, Virginia Tech will lead a research node in Southwest Virginia with Radford University and the University of Virginia-Wise.
George Mason University, based in Fairfax, will lead the Northern Virginia node, which will include researchers from James Madison University, the University of Mary Washington, and Northern Virginia, Lord Fairfax and Germanna community colleges.
In Hampton Roads, Old Dominion University will lead a research node with Christopher Newport University, the College of William & Mary, Norfolk State University, and Paul D. Camp, Thomas Nelson and Tidewater community colleges.
But while the state committee certified the four nodes, it decided to withhold state funding and approval of their business plans until after review by a new high-level state work group that will help shape their relationship with the research hub in Arlington.
“It’s all, ‘how do we tie it together?’” said House Appropriations Director Robert Vaughn, who will serve on the work group with Senate Finance co-directors April Kees and Jason Powell; Northern Virginia lawyer Jim Dyke; and Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball.
The initiative, also known as CyberX, will encompass 320 faculty from 39 higher education institutions, 65 private companies, four federal government agencies and 45 regional partners, Reed told the state research investment committee on Tuesday.
One of the initiative’s first projects will be to establish a test bed for 5G technology to ensure the next generation of wireless technology is secure from cyber threats.
“We have quite an ambitious agenda here,” Reed said in an interview on Monday.
Reed arrived at Tech in 1992 and was founding director of the wireless network at the university. He became interim executive director last month, after Charles Clancy stepped down to become vice president for intelligence at Mitre Corp.
With Clancy’s departure, Eric Paterson, a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, has been named interim executive director of the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology, which operates in both Blacksburg and Arlington.
Reed will divide his time between Blacksburg and the CyberX hub in Arlington.
The research committee voted in March to release $10 million earmarked in the budget to establish the hub in the fiscal year that begins July 1. However, it conditioned its approval on changes to diversify faculty of the hub beyond employees of Virginia Tech and commitment of university funds to the operation.
In response, Tech proposes to create the CCI Fellows, a group of up to 20 faculty from research institutions across Virginia that will receive 25 percent of their pay from the hub. “They will have the ability to come whenever they want to the hub,” Reed said in an interview.
Virginia Tech also is committing a sizable amount of funding to the hub operation — $1.4 million this fiscal year, including money to develop the blueprint for the initiative and search for a full-time executive director, and $2 million in the next fiscal year, most of it for faculty, as well as space in the building owned by the Virginia Tech Foundation.
The budget also includes $10 million to fund research operations at the four nodes, as well as $5 million in capital funds to pay for laboratories and other physical improvements to research facilities.
However, the state wants a clearer understanding of how the four nodes will interact with the research hub before releasing the money or approving their business plans.
“Now we do the hard work of how it’s going to coordinate,” said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, a member of the state research investment committee.