Nearly everyone has heard of California’s Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle Park. But other innovative research communities can be seen in virtually every region of the country. They may not be as big or well-known as Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle; but they, too, are helping pave the way to tomorrow’s high-tech future.
West Virginia has not one, but two research facilities that are quietly developing new technologies that have already changed the ways we live and work — and will continue to do so in the future.
The two facilities have very different histories. In South Charleston, the West Virginia Regional Technology Park has been fashioned from the former world research headquarters of former chemical giant Union Carbide Corporation.
And just south of Fairmont stands the I-79 Technology Park, which has attracted a cluster of federal agencies that make it one of the nation’s top technology centers.
“For the last 50 years, technology has driven more than 50 percent of the U.S. economy and will continue to do so for the next 50 years,” said Rusty Kruzelock, Ph.D., executive director and CEO of the Regional Technology Park. “Our goal here is to create technology-based jobs that will help diversify and grow West Virginia’s economy.”
Union Carbide created its Technical Center in the years 1947-48. From its inception, it was a center of innovation and new ideas.
“Over 30,000 patents came out of the Tech Center,” Kruzelock said. “Memory foam was invented here. The Eveready battery came from here, as did Glad products, Simonize car wax and so many other things — even the fuel for the Apollo space missions. That innovation and creativity is still here. It’s in the dedicated people who work here. That’s the real magic here.”
In 2001, the Dow Chemical Company acquired Union Carbide and moved much of its research and development work to other locations, such as Michigan and Texas. In 2010, Dow donated the former Union Carbide Technical Center to the state of West Virginia. The center, now designated the West Virginia Regional Technology Park, is administered by the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
The 258-acre South Charleston campus has 16 major buildings and a number of smaller structures. In all, it has about 950,000 square feet of offices, laboratories and manufacturing facilities.
“You can do it all right here,” said Kruzelock. “You can build a chemical process here on a bench top in a chemical lab. Then you can scale it up to the next level in a small pilot plant here. Next, from a commercial development perspective, you can take it to a larger facility. And then we can even bring the process up to low-level production. There are very few places in the United States where you can take a specialty chemical from bench top to low-level production, all in the same location.”
Kruzelock noted that when Union Carbide designed its research center, “they didn’t know what their next product was going to be, so they designed the center with a lot of flexibility that still can be seen here today.”
“This Tech Park is all about taking great ideas, great concepts and bringing them to the marketplace,” he said. “We’re doing that in three ways: First, there’s no quicker way to create jobs in West Virginia than by helping our existing Tech Park companies grow. Roughly one-fifth of our growth at the park is internal expansion. That’s a short-term strategy.
“The second way is more of a mid-term strategy. It’s to attract technology companies to West Virginia. And we do that by showing them how we can help them grow. We’ve had some good success in that regard. In the last four years since I’ve been here, we’ve gone from approximately 444 employees to a current 867 and we are on track to meet our goal of having 1,000 employees by 2020.
“Third, a longer-term strategy is to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem — the infrastructure necessary to help young people with great ideas build technology companies here in West Virginia. We want to help build companies that are started here in West Virginia grow in West Virginia, and, importantly, remain in West Virginia. We don’t want to see companies start and grow here, and then move elsewhere.”
“We like to consider ourselves as the commercialization arm of the state’s economic development effort,” added Howard Swint, real estate and communications manager at the Tech Park.
“Our core comes from Union Carbide. It’s chemicals and energy,” said Kruzelock. “But we’re more than that. We’re advanced materials. Right now, one of our labs is making a transparent polymer that has the same optical properties as glass. It’s very strong and may even have anti-ballistic capabilities. They can make it rigid or flexible, depending on what it’s going to be used for. With the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) here on the campus, we’re into advanced manufacturing. With companies like N3, we now have data scientists. We even have some biotechnology going on here.”
(MATRIC), an independent nonprofit organization, is one of the Tech Park’s core tenants.In the four years after Dow Chemical acquired the Union Carbide Tech Center, more than 150 doctorate-level researchers and approximately 900 other degreed staff were let go. Many of those world-class scientists came together to form MATRIC so they could continue their research. Today, MATRIC is a strategic innovation partner to industry with customers on six continents.
“MATRIC,” Kruzelock said, “uses chemists and engineers to make products that are not only technically sound but also economically sound. Many of the former Union Carbide researchers who founded MATRIC are still at work in its labs, but it’s recruited a number of talented young people as well.”
Steven B. Hedrick recalls how impressed he was when he saw a science demonstration at the Union Carbide Tech Center when he toured the center as a boy. Hedrick went on to earn a degree in chemical engineering at West Point. After serving in the Army, he worked in the chemical industry. Today, as MATRIC president and CEO, he works in the same building that fascinated him as a child.
MATRIC occupies approximately 35 sophisticated laboratories in Building 740 on the Tech Park campus. Those labs support a wide range of experimental and development activities in chemical technology.
A handful of other places do what MATRIC does but, as Hedrick notes, those other places are older and larger. While it may be small in size, MATRIC has built an impressive client list that includes giant companies like Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil, along with U.S. government agencies and chemical technology startups.
The Tech Park’s newest tenant, N3, is a technology based business-to-business sales and marketing company. “They currently have 145 hires and are on track to reach their goal of 300,” Kruzelock said.
“N3 has experienced tremendous growth each year, due in part to the dedication of our employees to driving real revenue results for our clients,” N3 CEO Jeff Laue said in an Aug. 28, 2017, news conference announcing the company’s decision to locate at the Tech Park.
“The West Virginia Regional Technology Park is a perfect fit for N3 and our growing business — its proximity to excellent colleges and universities, and being located in the heart of the Kanawha Valley, will help us recruit the talent we need to serve our clients,” said Laue. “Being part of the growing number of innovators located at the Tech Park is an added bonus. We’re excited for our future here.”
Describing him as “an incredibly innovative and forward seeking individual,” Kruzelock credited Douglas Tate, president and CEO of Alpha Technologies Inc., with “adding a new dimension to the Tech Park.”
After acquiring the former Union Carbide data center at the Tech Park, Tate is now building 35 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable linking Charleston, Kanawha City and Southern Charleston with the data center. “The fiber-optic loop will provide Charleston area businesses with high-speed internet and data capabilities,” Kruzelock said. “Next, Tate is planning to install a 50-mile loop between Charleston and Huntington and open a data center in Huntington.”
Swint noted that the state’s planned expansion of Jefferson Road, expected to get underway in 2019, could prove beneficial to the Tech Park. “We are working closely with the West Virginia Division of Highways, the city of South Charleston and the state Economic Development Office to make them aware of the opportunities the project presents. We hope to get at least one new entrance as well as more usable acreage with the placement of excess fill from the road work.”
While the Tech Park in South Charleston dates back to the late 1940s, when Union Carbide built its technology and research center, the I-79 Technology Park is far newer.Located just south of Fairmont, the I-79 Technology Park was born in the early 1990s thanks to then-U.S. Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, R-W.Va., and the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., Recognizing the growing role technology would play in the future, Mollohan and Byrd helped steer federal funding and federal contracts toward a state-of-the-art technology facility furnished with the latest in infrastructure and support.
The park provides mission-critical support for some of the federal government’s largest agencies, including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The project got its first government tenant in 1993, when NASA opened its Independent Verification and Validation Facility at the park. The facility confirms the performance of some of NASA’s major software systems. Its construction was followed by other federal facilities, including a ground station for the NOAA satellite program, which provides 99 percent of the climate data for the Western Hemisphere, and NOAA’s Environmental Security Computing Center, one of the most advanced supercomputing centers in the nation.
The I-79 Technology Park also is home to a number of private companies and government contractors, including R&D programs run by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Time Warner Cable and Computer Sciences Corp.
FirstEnergy’s West Virginia Operations Headquarters is located at the park, as is Mon Power’s utility operations and a regional transmission control center. The park is also home to Pierpont Community and Technical College and the North Central Technology Center.
The park’s Robert H. Mollohan Research Center has approximately 248,000 square feet of office and meeting space. Completed in 2006, it contains a 160-seat auditorium with breakout rooms and a large exhibition hall.
Approximately 1,250 employees work at the park, which has been the beneficiary of the federal government’s policy of locating new operations outside the crowded Washington, D.C., metropolitan area but still within a relatively short commuting distance from Washington.
“Our goal is to create an ecosystem centered on federal operations from the Washington, D.C., area that do a substantial amount of contracting,” said Jim Estep, president and CEO of the High Technology Foundation, which developed and operates the park. “When you attract those activities here, contractors cluster around those operations and create jobs.”
The park offers plots of land at no cost to government agencies that promise to bring in significant contractor business. Estep said it will consider similar deals with private companies if they’re a good fit.
“If you’re big enough and can attract significant business, we’ll look at offering land at no cost, or a very good deal,” he said. “Our goal is to continually attract companies and organizations that fit with what we have here and add to the vibrant R&D community we’ve built.”
The High Tech Foundation spent most of 2017 locked in a legal battle regarding the delayed repayment of a bank loan. But ultimately the dispute was resolved and the case dismissed, enabling the foundation to proceed with Phase III of a planned expansion, funded by a $3.9 million federal grant.
According to information posted on the foundation’s website, the first section of the Phase III expansion includes construction of more than 1,500 feet of roadway, installation of water and sewer lines, underground electric lines and fiber-optic cable “to serve three future federal anchor building pads and a new retail development area.” Plans call for the first section of the Phase III expansion to be completed by fall 2019.