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Monday, September 22, 2003

BU, businesses forge alliances

Projects for EIT, Diamond Visionics are in the works

BY TODD MCADAM
Press & Sun-Bulletin

[ photo ]
Binghamton University computer science assistant professor Zhongfei "Mark" Zhang has four research projects, including one with a local company, Diamond Visionics of Binghamton, to create software for manipulation of photographs used in simulators.
CHUCK HAUPT / Press & Sun-Bulletin

[ photo ]
Research assistants, from left, Ruofei Zhang, Jian Yao and Qixiong Zhen, work in the Multimedia Research Lab at Binghamton University on various projects.
CHUCK HAUPT / Press & Sun-Bulletin

Shooting for the Center

New York has three "Centers of Excellence" based in Albany, Rochester and Buffalo, meant to spur economic development.

The centers are the focus of a $1 billion program to fuel high-technology and biotechnology research and development: $283 million in state funds over five years with the possibility of drawing $700 million more in federal and private funding. Binghamton University wants a share of the pie.

It proposes developing a center based around electronics packaging -- the industry that IBM developed here and is now dominated by companies such as Endicott Interconnect Technologies and Universal Instruments. It has already reached a partnership with EIT, and is working with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Here are the three existing centers:

* Bioinformatics in Buffalo. The center partners the University of Buffalo with Roswell Park, the Hauptman Woodward Medical Research Institute, Praxair and other companies to develop protein and gene research.

* Photonics and optoelectronics in Rochester. The center groups Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester, SUNY Albany, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Kodak, Corning and other companies to develop light-based energy and information transfers to speed electronics and telecommunications devices.

* Nanoelectronics in Albany. The center pairs IBM and SUNY Albany to develop a state-of-the-art computer chip work force development facility to work with IBM's newest chip facility in East Fishkill.

-- TODD MCADAM


Zhongfei "Mark" Zhang's foot jiggles and his voice grows more animated as he explains how his Air Force-funded research at Binghamton University will spin off into new products and new jobs for Diamond Visionics of Binghamton.

That the computer science professor's work will help improve Greater Binghamton's economy is important. The community is looking increasingly to the university to contribute to redeveloping a metropolis that has decayed from its glory days of a half-century ago. But this stuff -- manipulating visual images to help train air-traffic controllers -- is just cool.

Binghamton University's forays into helping rebuild the economy are about to get a lot cooler: The university will partner with Endicott Interconnect Technologies to create new ways to package electronics. Not just products that the former IBM microelectronics plant can make, but new technologies that would ideally take the entire industry a step further.

"We're laying out a whole series of projects," President Lois DeFleur said. "We'll eventually have 30 faculty and up to 100 students at EIT."

Zhang's partnership with the Binghamton simulation company and the larger project with the Endicott electronics manufacturer are two critical connections to the community that Southern Tier leaders say the university must pursue. And the university agrees.

"We need to have a thriving, growing community," DeFleur said. It helps attract researchers and students, and a growing community provides opportunities for spouses and family members.

The university is one element in a complex puzzle to build that community, but it's one that can connect with Greater Binghamton in many ways:

* Its research can lead to products -- and entire companies -- that can employ people and bring investment.

* Its students and employees can bring new ideas and tens of millions of dollars in cash to exchange off campus. That, in turn, can create an environment that economic developers say is attractive to the young professionals who will eventually dominate the economy.

* Its arts and athletics -- including its newly minted Division I athletic program -- can provide entertainment to the community and improve the quality of life.

But it's the research that developers look to most.

Forging partnerships

"We need them to truly become a community-oriented university," said Terrence Kane, Broome County's deputy executive, who was an early author of the county's redevelopment plan. "It's not like they're a business that's going to send jobs to China."

And the university needs to get off campus and have a very visible presence in the community, said state Sen. Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton.

"That begins the process of improving economic development," he said. "It shows companies other opportunities for expansion."

The partnership with Endicott Interconnect can fulfill both goals. The goal is to create new technologies that local companies can use to create new products in an industry that's being undercut by low-cost foreign competition. Keeping the technological advantage here, university executives suggest, means the jobs will stay here, too.

"Our primary interest is really creating the next generation of materials and designs," said Baghat Sammakia, Binghamton University's interim vice president for research and director of the Integrated Electronics Engineering Center. "(SUNY) Albany might build a sensor. To make a system out of it requires a different set of techniques and research."

That's the larger picture behind the partnership. DeFleur and Sammakia hope to spin the partnership -- which includes Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- into a state "Center for Excellence." The state has clustered technology research into a variety of centers across the state and plans to either spend or draw $1 billion in funding for them.

The smaller picture is work such as Zhang's. His work on four different projects can draw business to Binghamton. And that means jobs.

The simulator project is a prime example. Diamond Visionics wants to design a simulator to train air-traffic controllers. The idea is to put the trainee in a room that looks exactly like an airport's control tower -- complete with the view outside the window. Getting the view would seem simple: Take a photograph and project it onto the wall. But the simulator would mimic the different times of day, the weather conditions, the planes and other vehicles moving around the airport. So before all those elements, called time-specific objects, can be added into the simulation, they have to be taken out of the picture.

"Putting the objects in is Diamond Visionics' job. The first task, making the image and removing the time-specific objects -- that's my job," Zhang said.

The commercial applications go well beyond air-traffic control. The next steps could be to apply the same technologies to moving simulators, such as for flying or driving. It could even someday be used in video games.

Zhang and Diamond Visionics completed the first phase of the Air Force-funded research, the proof of concept, several months ago. The second phase, creating a viable product, starts this week.

Winning funding

Getting the research dollars, which act as seed corn for reinvestment, hasn't always been easy for Binghamton University. While it got about $25 million in research grants last year, and expects that figure to grow 10 percent to 12 percent a year for the next several years, it's still behind the other three SUNY centers. Buffalo is an older institution with a medical school attached, and Stony Brook was always intended as an engineering-oriented facility that would do the kind of research that brings big grants, DeFleur said. So perhaps they're not the best comparisons.

The university she feels is a better comparison, the University of California at Santa Cruz, approached $80 million in research grants in the last fiscal year, but like Binghamton, has averaged about 11 percent growth for the past five years.

Still, it's a competitive world, and Binghamton had to redouble efforts to get the grants as other university centers pulled ahead. Buffalo and Albany were designated Centers of Excellence, and attention -- as well as money -- was focused on them.

Part of Binghamton University's difficulty, DeFleur said, was the number of applications BU applied for alone. She asked officials in Gov. George E. Pataki's office what the problem was.

"They said we need to get some more partners," DeFleur said. That's where Endicott Interconnect and Rensselaer Polytechnic come in.

"They've had some good partnerships," Libous said, but needed more. "We knew the opportunities EIT under local management could bring to this community."

Libous lobbied for $15 million under the state's Gen*NY*Sys program for biotechnology research and development as a "plan B" to winning a Center for Excellence, he said. But that money pales in comparison to the tens of millions a center could provide.

Looking ahead

The university will combine its partnerships with the Innovative Technologies Complex it plans to open using the $15 million Gen*NY*Sys funding, DeFleur said. The opportunities the effort creates will, ideally, lead to a cascade of new research.

But BU will still need facilities, on campus and off, to grow, DeFleur said, and it will need money for equipment and professors and all the ingredients of a research university. It expects to spend nearly $500 million for new facilities during the next decade.

"We need professional opportunities. We need quality of life. We need infrastructure out in the community," DeFleur said.

And that will take time. Before the university can become a Center for Excellence, Libous said, it must first show success with the Gen*NY*Sys investment.

"We should accomplish the attainable things first," he said.

Until then, Zhang and his 10 assistants will continue with his projects in simulation, computerized video stabilization to improve surveillance technology, visual indexing and a study of data mining that can help the government and businesses link seemingly unrelated events.

It's pretty complex stuff until you see it in action, but Zhang can point out the opportunities for investment each one creates. And with each project, his excitement grows and his foot jiggles.

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