No state in the nation is more in need of good economic development news than Louisiana.

In a region consumed with recovering from Hurricane Katrina, state and local officials see this summer's opening of a supercomputing and virtual reality center at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, as a potential business magnet and an engine for research-and-development-based startups.

The Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE) complex includes a six-sided, digital virtual-reality cube, and what its developers claim is the world's largest digital three-dimensional auditorium. These three-dimensional environments, powered by supercomputers from Silicon Graphics Inc., are valuable to researchers in several fields because they can jointly view, assess and manipulate compilations of complex data.

Its founders hope that creating an environment in which LITE's business tenants and university researchers work side by side will engender innovations leading to economic development.

Vision 2020

Although the 70,000-square-foot center may provide Louisiana a post-Katrina boost, that was not its purpose.

The project, scheduled to officially open in July 2006, is just one result of a long-term statewide economic plan first drafted in 1998 dubbed "Louisiana: Vision 2020" and written to address several economic challenges. For instance, 17 percent of the state's population lives the below poverty level, according to a 2003 U.S. Census Bureau report. Also, state officials deplored the absence of Fortune 500 companies choosing Louisiana for corporate headquarters over the last 30 years, according to Professor Ramesh Kolluru, director of the Center for Business and Information Technologies at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.

"We realize that's a grim statistic and that we have to create our own startups as a key part of our strategy for the state," said Kolluru. "Post-Katrina, it's even less likely we'll see huge capital investments coming from outside. That makes it even more important that we grow it ourselves. This is a project that can shape the redevelopment of the state with the talent and technology we now have in place."

A 2001 state report noted that in 1997 Louisiana ranked 49th among the states in research-and-development expenditures per $1,000 of gross state product. As a result, a large part of the economic development effort is focused on stimulating private-sector research and development, and commercializing technologies developed at Louisiana universities. In 2005, the Louisiana Legislature passed a 20 percent research-and-development tax credit, the highest in the nation.

The Pelican State has also taken steps to bolster its IT infrastructure, including the creation of the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative (LONI), a statewide fiber-optic network. LONI will connect the state's research universities to the National LambdaRail, which links the country's most powerful computers into an advanced network for research. Louisiana's universities committed $5 million over five years to help route the network through the state.

The $20 million spent to build LITE is part of a larger effort to encourage the transfer of knowledge and technologies from Louisiana universities to the private sector.

"I wanted business to connect more closely with the universities," said Gov. Kathleen Blanco at the official LITE groundbreaking in April 2005. "It's going to set the stage for some pretty wonderful things in Louisiana for the coming years."

A Draw to Oil and Gas Industry

LITE's three-dimensional technology was initially attractive as an investment because of its value to the state's oil and gas services companies.

"Across the state we were losing oil and gas industry jobs to Houston," recalled Kolluru. "From 2001 to 2004, we lost 3,000 to 4,000 jobs in the oil and gas service sector alone."

The state studied ways to bring those jobs back. Because many oil and gas services companies use technology as a resource, the vision was to provide services to those firms, as well as to other industries, such as medicine and government, Kolluru said.

Supercomputing power can allow oil-exploration firms to process

David Raths  |  contributing writer