Turning on the LITE

Louisiana officials hope supercomputing center becomes economic development magnet.

by / July 6, 2006 0
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 information and reach decisions more quickly about whether to drill in certain areas. In the three-dimensional immersive environment, geologists and geophysicists can locate hydrocarbons more precisely. Faster data processing and three-dimensional views can translate into less time from inception to drilling of a well, and the more accurate the information, the better the chance of striking oil.

The three-dimensional immersive technology is "not as readily available to the smaller, independent companies in Louisiana as it is to the big oil companies based in Houston," said Gregg Gothreaux, president and CEO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, one of LITE's sponsoring organizations.

LITE's first business tenants are oil and gas services companies Stone Energy and Merlin Oil and Gas Inc., as well as C.H. Fenstermaker and Associates, a surveying and mapping firm.

Yet Gothreaux said the oil industry would not necessarily be its primary application.

"Every day we talk to someone interested in LITE, and it's across the spectrum, from medicine to the automotive industry to manufacturing," he said, noting that Louisianans see the collaboration that created LITE as a harbinger of things to come. "This will promote government-industry-university cooperation. First, it should attract people doing R&D in different fields. That should lead to economic development opportunities."

One of the claims has been that LITE should attract researchers to Lafayette. In that regard, it has already partially succeeded with the recruitment of Carolina Cruz, LITE's chief scientist, who recently joined the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, from Iowa State University.

Known for her work in virtual reality environments, Cruz said she expects other researchers will soon follow her to Lafayette. At Iowa State, she worked on virtual reality environment projects for General Motors and the Argonne National Laboratory. Cruz was drawn to LITE's blend of academic research and economic development.

"The fact that the center was going to have industry residents was very appealing," she said, adding that the potential for software spin-offs from LITE is good. "The university is eager to do tech transfer and take advantage of its intellectual property."

Cruz said she is assembling a research team of eight high-level positions, complemented by graduate students and local professionals, to occupy 5,000 square feet of the new center.

Hurricane Recovery Tool?
As the region struggles to recover from Katrina, LITE representatives are talking to local government agencies involved in reconstruction and emergency management. Members of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency in charge of rebuilding, are currently planning for the next disaster.

"They were extremely excited after meeting with us about the possibility for supercomputers to model the rebuilding of highways, bridges and levees," Kolluru said.

With GIS and aerial images, researchers can simulate the effect of tidal events on critical infrastructure, he added. For instance, LITE could have been used to simulate how long it would take New Orleans to drain after the flood, or as a virtual command and control center in a hurricane.

Although no deals have been announced yet, Kolluru said conversations are under way about how LITE can use high-performance computing to benefit Louisiana.

"We expect that to be a significant part of our mission, and we expect several projects to emerge out of that soon," he said.

It's too early to say whether the center will provide the economic development boost local officials are hoping for, but Gothreaux believes that, combined with the research-and-development tax credit, the infrastructure investments provide his organization a great recruiting tool.

In addition to LITE, Lafayette will also soon boast widespread fiber-optic network. In 2005, voters approved a $115 million budget to expand its 65-mile municipal fiber loop to every home and business in the city.

"We believe we will be the only community in the country that will allow small and medium-size businesses located anywhere on our fiber loop to use a resource like LITE for supercomputing or remote visualization from their office," Gothreaux said.

The project could include other universities in the state affiliated with the LONI network or nationally with the LambdaRail network, he said.

"We know of no place else in the country where that's possible -- and we've looked."
David Raths contributing writer