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WATCH NOW: In the cloud: budget plan would boost computing power for research and development in region

WATCH NOW: In the cloud: budget plan would boost computing power for research and development in region

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A pending budget proposal could ease the financial strain on an advanced manufacturing research center outside of Petersburg and create a new research facility driven by powerful computers and high-speed internet outside of Richmond.

All of it is aimed at economic development driven by data technology that has become central to Virginia’s economy.

The proposal, part of the budget the House of Delegates adopted on Friday, also would give a lead role to Virginia Commonwealth University in research partnerships with other higher education institutions seeking to find new ways of doing business — from manufacturing medical devices and pharmaceutical products to running factories or moving freight.

What they need is the computing power to handle massive amounts of data — storing, retrieving and protecting it through a digitally interconnected “cloud.”

“This is a huge amount of computing power that we do not now have,” said Barbara Boyan, dean of the College of Engineering at VCU, which would manage the proposed Commonwealth Center for Cloud Computing in eastern Henrico County under the budget proposal as a partnership among universities, industry and government.

“It is envisioned that this hardware and network infrastructure would interconnect universities, government agencies and health systems across central Virginia,” Boyan said.

The proposal pairs with budget efforts by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee who is seeking money to help the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Prince George County, which is part of her House district.

Aird asked for $10 million, included in the budget, to help Petersburg expand the capacity of its water and wastewater systems to serve a growing community of research-driven pharmaceutical companies that represent a big economic payoff for a city that badly needs it.

“This is one of those opportunities that does not come along very often,” Aird said in an interview Friday.

The solution House budget writers proposed begins with $20 million in currently approved state bonds to build a headquarters for yet another center of excellence — the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, a research partnership that includes VCU, Virginia State University, Longwood University, the University of Virginia and Old Dominion University.

Instead of using the money for a new building next to the Center for Advanced Manufacturing, the House budget proposes to buy the existing building from the University of Virginia Foundation for about $12 million. The purchase would relieve the manufacturing research center from paying rent that has crimped its cash flow and allow the logistics center to move into unoccupied space in the building.

The House plan would use $6.9 million of that converted bond money to create the cloud computing center, potentially at the QTS data center at White Oak Technology Park in eastern Henrico, where it would connect to an expanding network of high-speed undersea telecommunications cables that carry data from around the world.

“It’s the fastest internet in the world,” said Anthony Romanello, executive director of the Henrico Economic Development Authority.

QTS operates a data center at the former Qimonda semiconductor chip factory that closed in 2009 during the Great Recession. “QTS has been involved with early-stage scoping studies and is interested in providing hosting services for the proposed program,” Boyan said.

VCU would lead the new center with UVA, Virginia Tech, Virginia State, Longwood and Old Dominion. Old Dominion and VCU are leaders of regional research nodes in the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative that the assembly established three years ago through a budget initiative by then-House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

“It gives all of us access to higher education computing power,” said Boyan, who is a member of the board of directors at the Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority, created last year to oversee various state-sponsored research and development centers, including the Center for Innovative Technology, now headquartered in Richmond.

The new cloud computing center would include many of the same research institutions as CCAM, as the advanced manufacturing initiative is known, and the logistics consortium known as CCALS.

CCAM is looking for state help with its rent and other overhead costs, as well as attracting federal government research grants, for its mission of developing advanced processes for manufacturing that will create economic opportunities in the region and the rest of the state. The Senate and House budgets also include money to help the center with its expenses and attract federal research grants.

“However they decide they will invest in CCAM to help grow the manufacturing footprint in the region, I’m all in,” said John Milton-Benoit, a former aerospace research executive who became the center’s CEO in August.

One of the biggest opportunities for advanced manufacturing is taking shape about 4 miles from the center in Petersburg. There, a cluster of pharmaceutical companies are establishing operations to take advantage of research for making pharmaceutical products. Ampac Fine Chemicals has already begun operating at a former pharmaceutical plant in Petersburg.

Other manufacturers include Phlow Corp., a new Richmond company that received a four-year, $354 million federal contract last year to produce chemical ingredients for generic drugs to treat COVID-19 patients.

Aird’s budget amendment would give $10 million to a state community development agency to aid Petersburg in making improvements to its water and sewer systems “necessary to sustain a regional pharmaceutical manufacturing cluster.”

“As we build a cluster down there in Petersburg, there are certain utility basics that need to be upgraded to accommodate that expansion,” said Robby Demeria, a former state commerce official who is chief of staff at Phlow.

Aird said the proposed investments are “laying a new foundation in one of the most economically distressed parts of the state.”

The House budget proposal also would boost a thriving technology community in eastern Henrico that is part of a wider growth in data technology businesses that has helped buffer Virginia from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It looks to be a great economic development opportunity for the whole commonwealth,” Henrico Manager John Vithoulkas said last week. “VCU does things right. I think it’s a great project.”

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