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Augusta, Ga., Hopes Big Cybersecurity Center Will Turn it Into Tech Hub

Augusta's $100 million facility's mission is to promote cybersecurity innovation through collaboration by government organizations, private-sector businesses, academia and the military.

(TNS) — The Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Training and Innovation Center is taking shape on Reynolds Street.

But what is it, really? What will it do? And what will it do for Augusta?

Answering those questions requires drilling down to the basics.

Though "cyber" is derived from the word cybernetics — the study of human and machine interactions — the term in Augusta most often refers to cybersecurity, which is the protection of computers and data from unauthorized or criminal use. The word gained currency in the 1990s amid society's increasing dependence on computers for communication, shopping and banking.

The broad mission of Augusta's $100 million facility is to promote cybersecurity innovation through collaboration by government organizations, private-sector businesses, academia and the military.

The Georgia Technology Authority-owned center has many partners, but the biggest locally are Fort Gordon and Augusta University.

Fort Gordon is home to the Army's Cyber Center of Excellence, the military's largest communications and cybersecurity training center. It also houses a National Security Agency cryptological center, which monitors electronically intercepted intelligence from Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa. By 2020, the post will house the Army's Cyber Command, currently located at Fort Belvoir, Va.

The military says cyberwarfare is the newest, and increasingly important, theater of battle. It relies not on numerical or physical strength, but the most tactically effective use of technology. State officials cited proximity to Fort Gordon as the reason it chose to build the center at AU's Riverfront Campus.

AU founded its Cyber Institute in 2015 to develop research, new curricula and outreach opportunities in cybersecurity. In July, AU launched its School of Computer and Cyber Sciences to improve and expand the university's computer science and information technology programs. That school moves in when the first phase of 332,000-square-foot project is completed in July.

Michael Shaffer, AU's executive vice president of strategic partnerships and economic development, said construction is on schedule thanks to contractors and other project partners, including the city of Augusta, which he says has "been exceptional in making sure that the process moves along."

"Everyone had to agree to this aggressive timeline," he said.

AU President Dr. Brooks Keel said a ribbon-cutting is scheduled the evening of July 10. The first meeting in the center's 340-seat auditorium – a GTA conference – is scheduled the following day.

"We will start moving our faculty into the building just as quick as we can, and have it up and functioning by the time that fall semester starts," Keel said.

The second-phase, which is architecturally identical to the first, is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

Other tenants in the five-story center include Augusta Technical College, the Georgia National Guard and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Cyber Crime Unit.

AU will oversee the center's day-to-day operations through a memorandum of understanding with the GTA.

For the center's education and training mission, there will be classrooms, faculty offices, conference rooms and the auditorium. Networking labs – specially equipped spaces where technology professionals can collaborate and test ideas – are designed to foster cybersecurity research and economic development.

One of the more intriguing parts of the facility is its "cyber range" – a virtual environment where students, government employees and industry partners can hone their training and tactics in the way a marksman might use a rifle range. A high-security data center will store and process massive amounts of digital information through a large group of connected servers.

An entire floor will be reserved for private partners wanting to lease space to take advantage of the "incubator business startup and innovation area," said Paula Calhoun, GTA communications director. She said those tenants have yet to be determined, and that the space will not be built out until after the facility opens.

Shaffer also wouldn't specify private-sector tenants, but said interest in the space has been high.

"There's a lot of great energy around that, I can tell you that," he said.

Calhoun said the inclusion of an incubator for cybersecurity start-ups is what differentiates the center from the typical state building.

"We're not aware of any other facility with the same scope," Calhoun said. "Partnerships among academia; local, state and federal agencies; the military; the private sector; and the inclusion of a cybercrime unit truly make Georgia's center unique."

Keel also uses the word "unique" to describe the center.

"The concept here is that you have a place where a student can walk out the classroom directly across the hall to do an internship. That is extremely powerful when you start talking to business and industry about coming to an environment," Keel said. "All businesses will tell you they want to be located near a university, but what they really mean is that they want to be on the campus, rubbing elbows with the students."

Kenneth Ferderer, a managing partner of InnoVacient, a Silicon Valley-based consultancy, said facilities such as the Hull McKnight center are one of the few ways governments can help encourage private-sector innovation. But he said entrepreneurism can be stifled by micromanagement or by allowing the facility to lose focus.

"If it's just kind of a one-time shot, it's probably going to be a nice building that will get re-purposed into something else," said Ferderer, whose firm advises governments and corporations on innovation and commercialization strategies.

His partner, Jeffrey Wells, former director of cyber development for the state of Maryland, said it can take many years for an innovation center to create an "ecosystem."

"Just because you build it immediately doesn't mean everybody is going to want to have an office there," Wells said. "Eventually, over time, people will set up shop, but it doesn't immediately mean everybody is going to want to be right next door. In cyber, you don't have to be right next door."

But proximity to Augusta's booming downtown is what AU experts are counting on. Dr. William Hatcher, director of AU's Master of Public Administration program, said he believes the new campus "will have a significant and positive effect on" the downtown economy.

He said the facility "will house professionals who will spend large portions of their days in the downtown. They will shop and eat. They will spend money in the downtown contributing to local businesses and the community's tax base."

Dr. Richard Franza, dean of AU's James M. Hull College of Business, also expects the center to spur growth.

"I haven't seen any direct economic impact studies, but here's the way I rationalize it: My sense is, because of that facility, you're going to have a lot more new businesses and existing businesses here in town. There are probably some already here based on the work at Fort Gordon," he said.

Franza took several economic development trips to study incubators and accelerators in cities such as Dallas, Chicago and Denver when he was senior associate dean of the Michael J. Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University.

He said the advantage Augusta's center has is its narrow focus and diverse tenant mix. He said the impact will be felt throughout the metro area; "not just downtown but in the surrounding communities."

Keel agrees, adding that the business and industry the facility attracts will spur additional commercial development.

"Think of hotels and restaurants and shops, all the conveniences that, when people work, they want to have near them," Keel said. "So we can easily see that once you have this campus start to develop."

Shaffer said the important thing to remember about the center is that it is "not an Augusta thing."

"This is a statewide initiative," Shaffer said. "It just happens to be located in Augusta. And we're the recipients of that. And that's huge."

©2018 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.