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Building Our Technology Future

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Those who will help transform the former Chrysler plant in Newark into  a state-of-the-art hub for high-tech research, business and academia include (from left) J. Michael Bowman, Patrick Harker, Kathleen Matt and David Weir. Photograph by Jared CastaldiDriving through Aberdeen Proving Ground is like taking a trip back in time. Rusted-out foreign military vehicles, seized in past wars and shipped to Aberdeen for testing, sit beside half-demolished testing facilities. Run-down barracks line narrow streets congested with cars and trucks. Tired old houses provide office space.

But change is coming to Aberdeen. Standing in stark contrast to its surroundings is a sleek bluish-green glass structure known as C4ISR. The 2.5 million-square-foot “mini-Pentagon” is home to the Army’s Command, Control, Computer, Communication, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance operation. That’s one federal agency—and a mouthful of a name—that is transforming the World War I-era installation from a low-tech munitions facility into a major research center—and Delaware is playing a major part.

The expansion is the result of the Base Realignment and Closure program (BRAC), which will bring 8,200 highly technical jobs from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. An additional 7,500 to 10,000 supporting jobs could also be created, according to the Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor, a tri-state group that includes New Castle County.

“It’s a bright spot in terms of economic opportunity,” says Karen Holt, the regional BRAC manager, who is based across the Susquehanna River in Harford County, Maryland. “It’s the most significant impact in the area since World War II in terms of job growth.”

Meanwhile, 35 miles up I-95, crews work to dismantle what’s left of the old Chrysler assembly plant, which the University of Delaware acquired last year. Soon the 60-year-old Newark landmark, which employed generations of workers—4,000 at its peak—will be a memory. Taking its place will be a state-of-the art hub for high-tech research, business and academia.

The project will not only reshape the university’s south campus, but position it to attract research partnerships with the BRAC-enhanced Aberdeen—opportunities that could further its goals of achieving national prominence in science and technological development and becoming an engine of job creation for the state.

“The possibilities are endless,” says David Weir, director of the university’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships. “When you consider all the technology that goes into the battlefield components associated with C4ISR, all the research is going to take place at APG.”

With the research will come federal dollars, an additional source of revenue in a time of declining appropriations and slumping endowments. The university also stands to gain tuition from partnering with Aberdeen to offer graduate courses to employees. “We hire them at the bachelor’s level, and if they last, they’ll need to earn master’s degrees to move into senior positions,” says Michael Lombardi, director of outreach for the Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) at Aberdeen.

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To pave the way for future collaborations and the jobs they would bring to the former industrial site, the university and the Army inked a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA, in January to share laboratories, personnel, facilities and equipment to conduct specific research associated with the agency’s mission.

“We can’t exchange money, but we can exchange laboratories, equipment, people and knowledge,” Lombardi says.

University President Patrick Harker says the formalized partnership with APG will be an important influence on the transformation of the Chrysler site into a major center of innovative science, technology and engineering as well as an incubator of new entrepreneurial businesses.

“The Army has a lot of other contractors and firms they work with,” he says. “And we are going to be working with them, and some of them may want to locate up here as opposed to down in Aberdeen.”

The document will make it easier to collaborate with the various organizations that make up RDECOM. “There’s a need on both sides to be able to work across boundaries and work together as teams,” says Weir. “This agreement—this RDECOM-level CRADA—puts that in place.”

Moreover, the opportunities extend well beyond Aberdeen—RDECOM has branches across the country, Lombardi says. Researchers from the university’s Center for Composite Materials have been working with the Army Research Laboratory since 1986.

“We’ve had a long tradition of working with them. We feel comfortable working with them. It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Jack Gillespie, director of the university’s Center for Composite Materials, which was designated an Army Center of Excellence in 1996.

Composites are stronger, lighter and more durable than traditional materials. Their use as protective as well as structural materials will remain an important area, Gillespie says.

Early projects involved developing lightweight materials for military vehicles as well as materials to protect soldiers against blasts, explosions and gunshots. Now the center is working to develop conformal antennas that can be embedded in Army vehicles and soldiers’ armor to replace traditional “whip” antennas like the ones found on trucks and cars. These hidden systems will both improve communications and streamline vehicles and battlefield personnel.

“We are looking at multifunctional materials where some of the electromagnetic properties can be designed into the materials along with their inherent properties of strength and minimum weight,” Gillespie says.

Weir sees opportunities for other specialties as well. Health sciences will benefit as the distinction between “life” and “death” sciences blurs. “Prostheses are becoming a very big issue now,” he says. “That will bring together health, materials, computers, mechanical and electrical engineering.”

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Kathleen Matt, dean of the College of Health Sciences and executive director of the Delaware Health Sciences Alliance, says working with the military could fast track developments in healthcare technologies. “The military almost lets you do a futuristic piece,” she says. “I see it as an opportunity to really try to develop technologies that can actually be applied to larger populations to enhance healthcare. It’s a way you can almost ‘leapfrog’ into some of those new technologies.”

Lombardi says there might be opportunities for the university to partner with research entities outside RDECOM, providing those organizations would be allowed to “piggyback” on the cooperative agreement. One possibility is for the university to collaborate with the Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense to work on the prevention and treatment of chemical warfare casualties. This research would draw on the university’s expertise in chemistry.

“That’s a tremendous opportunity for UDel,” Lombardi says. “It really opens up doors we haven’t thought about yet.”

New research initiatives and the civilian applications of defense technologies would likely attract start-up companies desiring to set up shop close to the action, bringing with them jobs. “The CRADA is the first step but a very important one as we move toward developing a technology park at the Chrysler site.” Gillespie says.

Although the university has the advantage of being the closest major research university to APG, it is not the only institution seeking to benefit from BRAC. Reports of a “turf war” between Maryland and Delaware have surfaced—something Lombardi dismisses as nonsense.

“We’re the Army. We make agreements with foreign countries to get various technologies, so we don’t get caught up in that,” he says. “And we truly believe that there’s more need than there are universities.”

Nor does Harker see any need for acrimony. “We know what we’re good at and we’ve been very clear with them,” he says. “The Army is interested in some of the research projects at Delaware State and we encourage this. We want that collaboration.”

Still, having a site with 272 well-positioned acres of open space presents a definite advantage. “The facility is approachable by train and by car,” says Congressman Michael N. Castle, who has been working on BRAC-related issues since the program was announced in 2005. “They can build whatever is necessary in terms of classrooms and labs to accommodate the things they plan to do there. They have room to expand.”

With two years to go before the first shovel breaks ground, no one is predicting how many jobs could be generated from ventures that would eventually locate on the site. But if the Delaware Technology Park in Newark is any indication, the project could be a formidable engine of job creation. Since 1998 the 40-acre site has grown to include 54 companies, generating about 16,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to J. Michael Bowman, CEO of the park.

But that growth will not likely come from a major corporate entity like Chrysler and will occur at a much slower rate. “You have to be patient because you’re dealing with early-stage companies as they grow, so it’s not so much about big anchor guys—although everyone hopes that happens—that’s not usually how (research parks) evolve,” says Bowman. “We’re not casting about for one humongous thing to come in here. We’re looking at, in baseball terms, ‘singles.’”

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The most significant challenge facing the development of the site is the economy. Ironically, the economic slump that eliminated competitors seeking to acquire the site will make capital difficult to obtain. “If employment was back to the good old days of 3 per cent, we’d be hitting a grand slam right now,” says Alan B. Levin, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office. “But universities have the luxury of time.”

Harker says the university needs partners and donors to complete the project, which furthers the school’s core mission as a land-grant institution.

Bowman sees the area evolving into a corridor similar to Route 128, the highway that rings the Boston metropolitan area with high-tech industries, dubbed the Massachusetts Miracle for its positive effects on that region’s growth in the 1980s. “When people think of Delaware, they think of the northern part of the state, but what’s happening in Newark right now is exciting.”

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