Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Our new Innovation Campus

 from the March 2021 Northern Virginia Technology Council Magazine:

Five Things to Know About Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus

Part of Virginia’s winning Amazon HQ2 proposal, the $1 billion campus will enhance the region’s broader technology ecosystem.

By Mark Toner

As construction of what will eventually become the first phase of Amazon’s HQ2 continued last fall in Crystal City, it was easy to miss the first day of class for the nearly 80 students who make up the inaugural cohort of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus. The students—all seeking master’s degrees in the high-demand fields of computer science and computer engineering—began their studies virtually, while Virginia Tech opened a physical office for its future campus next to Potomac Yard, which will be transformed into a mixed-use, Metro-accessible, 65-acre innovation district in the coming years. 

Over the next few years, the Innovation Campus will become a highly visible part of the region’s technology ecosystem, says Lance R. Collins, who left Cornell University to join Virginia Tech as the campus’ vice president and executive director last August. Equally importantly, the region’s technology ecosystem will become an integral part of the campus.

“We’re looking to build partnerships with companies—that’s an extremely important part of the design of the campus,” says Collins, who has also set a goal to

build the most diverse graduate tech campus in the country.

“Diverse people bring a diversity of thoughts and ideas,” he says. “I got to see that in my former institution, and after witnessing the richness and vitality diversity brings, nothing else makes sense.”

Here are five things to know about the Innovation Campus:

1. It’s about more than Amazon—and Alexandria.

In 2018, the competition to win Amazon’s HQ2 had reached a fever pitch. More than 240 localities across the country had submitted proposals to the Internet giant, with tax incentives playing an outsized role in many of them. Instead, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) proposal focused more broadly on economic development, including statewide investments in transportation and education—and ultimately brought HQ2 to Northern Virginia later that year.

Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus is part of a range of educational initiatives included in the VEDP proposal that will double the state’s number of graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and closely related fields. “This program will benefit tech employers across Virginia,” the proposal states. And the campus’ advisory board reflects the input of a wide range of the region’s technology companies, including representatives from Boeing, Hunch Analytics, KPMG, Northrop Grumman, and Qualcomm.

2. Its new leader has built a similar campus before.

Collins previously served as dean of Cornell University’s college of engineering, where he was on the leadership team that initiated a similar partnership which launched Cornell Tech in New York City in 2017.  Both campuses reflect the economic needs of the communities they serve, according to Collins.

“What’s really important about these campuses is that they recognize they’re a local phenomenon, and they should be driving the local economy,” he says. “They should be designed based on what is in close proximity to the campus.”

Along with Amazon, Collins points to the region’s technology companies that work with the federal government and defense industry. Virginia Tech’s long military history with its Corps of Cadets and more recent cybersecurity research represent a “built-in DNA connection” with the region’s needs, he adds.

“If you think about all the technology regions in the world, arguably there’s none more important than this one,” says Collins, who is working out of the Innovation Campus HQ at 3000 Potomac Avenue in Alexandria. “There’s the element of proximity to all the things we care about in terms of the nation’s security. If we’re going to sustain who we are and where we are in the world, it’s hard to argue there’s another region that’s more preeminent.”

 3. It will blend the work of the region’s technology companies with academics—in an intentionally “messy” way.

Collins calls the traditional ways higher ed often works with companies “transactional”—think sponsorships and career fairs. Instead, the Innovation Campus “wants to build an interface and an ongoing relationship with companies so they are part of the academics,” he says.

These relationships will be a central part of a reinvented master’s degree program that elevates a mandatory project component to half of the required credits—and is based on the needs of local technology companies.

Local companies would present a team of Innovation Campus students and faculty with a real-world problem they are trying to solve—for example, developing a secure communications protocol for a satellite, which could involve hardware, software, and regulatory components and constraints. Tasks are meant to be complex and straddle multiple disciplines by design, says Collins, who wants “the full messiness of the reality of technology development to be built into the projects.”

“We’re trying to teach more than the technology side of these things,” he says. “It’s about living in a world in which things aren’t perfectly well defined. Students will learn how to manage a group of people, and they’ll have to learn how to inspire each other and report to the [participating] company. By developing technology and professional skills, we’re really trying to develop leaders.”

While students would lead the project, participating companies would be required to devote staff time to provide feedback on the projects on an ongoing basis. Companies also will be able to extend projects over multiple years and become involved in more extensive research collaborations with faculty and students. “We want to be fluid and flexible, and attractive to companies,” Collins says.

4. The campus will create new pathways for diverse technology talent.

Ensuring a larger and more diverse technology workforce is a cornerstone goal for the Innovation Campus.

“Tech industries are notorious for their lack of diversity, both in terms of women and underrepresented minorities.  We want the Innovation Campus to work to reverse that trend.  Since we’re starting from scratch, we want this to be the most diverse tech graduate program in the country,” Collins says.

Collins has seen the impact of diversity firsthand. During his tenure at Cornell, its engineering school more than doubled the proportion of students from underrepresented communities, from 8 to 19 percent. Undergraduate enrollment by women increased to 50 percent.

Doing so at scale, however, will require steering more young people towards careers in technology. Virginia Tech already runs the Thinkabit Lab program with Qualcomm out of its existing Falls Church campus and has entered a partnership with Alexandria City Public Schools to strengthen elementary and middle school STEM education and build pathways from high school to college for low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students.

“Talent is uniformly distributed, but opportunity isn’t,” Collins says. “This is a diverse community in every dimension. To me, it’s a great community to be building programming to prepare children for STEM careers. If we succeed, we can export it.”

5. Its campus will be more than a campus.

When its doors open to students in 2024, Virginia Tech’s 11-story first academic building will be part of a much larger community. As the cornerstone of the mixed-use Innovation District, the Innovation Campus will “not be a walled off ivory tower,” Collins says. “It’s going to be a beehive of activity.”

Over time, the university will occupy 3.5 acres of what will ultimately be a 65-acre mixed-use district being developed by JBG Smith. An Innovation Building located directly across a public plaza will provide further opportunities for campus collaboration with the business community, and startups in particular.

As it expands, the campus itself will accommodate a wide range of programs for career switchers, executive education, and professional certifications. “We want to create all kinds of different pathways for people to get the education they want and need,” Collins says.

And while the inaugural cohort of students continues to work online as a result of the pandemic, Collins envisions most activities being centered around the physical campus.  “People being able to brainstorm, talk together, and have that more personal relationship with teammates—all that is difficult to replace in the online format.” Still, he allows for some flexibility given another of the region’s defining characteristics.

“Traffic here is no nonsense,” Collins says. “Now that I’ve moved into the area, I realize that.”

About the author: Mark Toner is a Reston-based technology writer.