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More than a building? Cyber center’s innovation dependent upon its operation

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More than a building? Cyber center’s innovation dependent upon its operation

By Joe Hotchkiss & Damon Cline of the Augusta Chronicle

It’s a big, impressive building.

Whether the cyber innovation center towering over the Augusta riverfront becomes more than that will depend largely on how it operates when it opens this summer.

Management culture will determine if the Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Center for Innovation and Training delivers on its lofty promise of helping Augusta become a cybersecurity innovator or whether the $100 million-plus riverfront complex becomes just another government office.

“The best advice we got is don’t try to over-control it,” said Johnson Cook, co-founder of the five-year-old Atlanta Tech Village, a private-sector innovation center considered the country’s fourth-largest tech hub. “Too many incubators and innovation centers think about it like a farm – you plant a seed, you water it and you keep out the weeds. But real innovation happens when the weeds can become a redwood tree.”

Cook was among the guests who joined state and local officials earlier this month in breaking ground on the innovation center’s 165,000-square-foot second phase. The 167,000-square-foot first phase is expected to open in July.

Overseen by the Georgia Technology Authority, the center will serve as an incubator for cyber-related businesses in the private sector as well provide space for cyber training and workforce development. Agencies with offices in the five-story center include Augusta Technical College, the Georgia National Guard and the University System of Georgia. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will operate its Cyber Crime Unit there.

Augusta University will house its Cyber Institute at the center as well as oversee the facility’s day-to-day operations through a memorandum of understanding with the GTA.

After AU, the largest local partner is Fort Gordon, home to the Army’s Cyber Center of Excellence, which operates the military’s largest communications and cybersecurity training center, and soon-to-be headquarters for Army Cyber Command.

GTA Executive Director Calvin Rhodes said the cyber center is a “space for opportunity” where inspired people from all corners of the cyber community can foster ideas to improve or re-invent technology.

People expected to work and learn in the center are “getting away from overhead, they can come in and really focus on their ideas,”Rhodes said. “And then putting the people around them, mentors for lack of a better word, they can bounce things off of, and also the folks who are trying to do some of the same type of work.”

Workers skilled in one area but lacking in other areas ideally will be positioned to network with others who could help advance theirideas. For example, a programmer with a brilliant idea for cybersecurity software might not know how to start a business to sell his product to those who need it.

Whatever the need is for a budding cyber entrepreneur, Rhodes said, “we’ll help them find a way to meet it.”

For the center’s education and training mission, there will be classrooms, faculty offices, several conference rooms and a 320-seat auditorium. Networking labs – specially equipped spaces where technology professionals can collaborate and test ideas – are expected to foster cybersecurity research and economic development.

But the most intriguing part of the facility might be the “cyber range” – a virtual environment where students, government employeesand industry partners hone their training and tactics the same way a marksman might use a rifle range.

Kenneth Ferderer, a managing partner of InnoVacient, a Silicon Valley-based consultancy, said funding the construction of facilities suchas the Hull McKnight center is one of the few ways governments can help foster innovation in the private sector.

Like Cook, Federer says innovation and entrepreneurism can be stifled by micromanagement or by allowing the facility to lose its focus.

“If it’s just kind of a one-time shot, it’s probably going to be a nice building that will get re-purposed into something else,” said Ferderer,whose firm advises governments and corporations on innovation and commercialization strategies.

No one is promising the facility will be an overnight success, nor should they. Federer’s partner, Jeffrey Wells, who served on the advisory board of the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence in Gaithersburg, Md., said it can take many years for an innovation center to create an “ecosystem.”

“Just because you build it immediately doesn’t mean everybody is going to want to have an office there,” said Wells, who served as the state of Maryland’s director of cyber development. “Eventually, over time, people will set up shop, but it doesn’t immediately mean everybody is going to want to be right next door. In cyber, you don’t have to be right next door.”