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Baylor and TSTC filling BRIC with high-tech partners

Feb. 5, 2012


Sunday February 5, 2012

A sleek renovation has turned an abandoned tire factory on Business 77 into the glass-and-metal shell of the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative. But this project is no build-it-and-they-will-come dream.

In fact, most of the high-tech center's 330,000 square feet is spoken for. Baylor University scientists and their partners in the BRIC met with architects this week to design lab space for research they already are doing on topics as diverse as airplane materials, lasers, space junk and large-scale data analysis.

The research labs, combined with Texas State Technical College's 45,000-square-foot technology training center and a Baylor-run "business accelerator," are intended to lure high-tech companies that want to set up shop at the BRIC.

Baylor, the state of Texas and local governments have contributed $45 million to launch the BRIC "discovery park," seen as a cornerstone of Waco's 21st-century economy.

"It's a one-stop shop," said Baylor vice provost of research Truell Hyde, who is heading the project. "I don't know of any place like it. It establishes a catalyst that will allow all these different groupings to interact.

"You have the ability to walk across the hallway and see people doing research in photoelectronics, space flight instrumentation and plasma. You can poke your head in and see work in space weather or composites."

Plans by Baylor and TSTC leave less than 40,000 square feet to offer to private industries, but Hyde said that is a good start.

Hyde says there is enough room on the 22 acres surrounding the BRIC to build another million square feet of facilities for a public-private research park in coming years.

"In many cases, what universities do is say, 'We're going to start a research park,' so they purchase land, put up a building and then hire a real estate person to populate it," he said. "That's not what we're doing.

"We're being very careful how we populate this. This is not a matter of 'Let's throw a bunch of stuff in there.' We're carefully and deliberately assembling a puzzle. What we want it to look like is a catalyst that will provide the ability to increase research that will attract high-tech businesses."

BRIC officials said they have fielded inquiries about the facility from about 100 companies.

L-3 Communications, Waco's largest private employer, is interested in having a presence there, BRIC program development director Jim Kephart said. The company, which modifies aircraft, already is working with Baylor engineers, researching composite materials that now replace aluminum, he said.

Technology transfer

A key goal of the research park is technology transfer, or making industrial applications for research generated in the laboratory.

Waco City Manager Larry Groth said the BRIC project is just the beginning of Waco's transition to a high-tech economy.

"I really believe it will be the No. 1 economic generator for the future," he said. "But it won't happen overnight. Baylor has made a huge commitment, along with TSTC. But we have to realize it's a long-term investment."

Crews are about a month from finishing the $32 million Phase 1 of the BRIC renovation, which gives the building a completely new exterior and reconfigures the inside.

The second phase, funded by Baylor regents last fall, fleshes out the interior with laboratories, offices and meeting space for 400. Various Baylor programs will move to the center at the beginning of 2013 or earlier, Hyde said.

The center will house graduate research programs for engineering, and Baylor already has begun ramping up its engineering program to prepare.

In 2009, just as the BRIC project was announced, the Baylor School of Engineering and Computer Science announced it was adding a doctoral program, and it has since expanded the engineering faculty.

Baylor last fall recruited Marlan Scully, a leading researcher in quantum optics, laser physics and bioengineering, to relocate his research laboratory from Princeton University to the BRIC. Hyde said that will give the BRIC high visibility from the beginning.

BRIC programs

Other programs that will help fill the BRIC include:

* The Baylor Center for Spatial Research, an interdisciplinary program devoted to the analysis of large data sets.

Hyde said the center has worked on everything from satellite mapping of Texas forest fires to reservoir water-quality analysis, and it could provide assistance to industrial research and development.

* The Hankamer School of Business' "Innovative Business Accelerator," which offers business research and strategy for firms.

* Baylor Institute for Air Science, which is focused on aerospace research as well as pilot training.

* TSTC's technical training programs. Hyde said the ability to train technicians for companies' high-tech operations is a selling point of the BRIC.

* The Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research, which Hyde founded. CASPER's research has included studies of orbital debris that can damage spacecraft; and plasma, the so-called fourth state of matter.

CASPER's makeshift labs and offices are scattered around Baylor and TSTC but will be consolidated at the BRIC.


During a visit to the CASPER lab at TSTC this week, Hyde and his colleagues showed off some of their latest research and development.

Professors, graduate students and undergraduate engineering students are collaborating on a space dust detector that will help satellites avoid damaging collisions. The palm-sized detector will be launched into orbit next year on a tiny satellite that the University of Texas at Austin is building.

Rene Laufer, a Baylor visiting scientist from Stuttgart, Germany, said larger space debris can destroy spacecraft and satellites, but larger objects can be tracked and avoided.

"With the smaller particles, there's no way to detect them from the ground," he said. "A small particle doesn't destroy (spacecraft), but it can end a mission."

The CASPER lab has specialized equipment to test items that are sent into space, such as a "dust accelerator" that shoots tiny particles with the force of a sniper bullet. Another prized machine, created by Stuttgart scientists, generates plasma for research purposes.

Aimie Cox, a Baylor senior electrical engineering student who has worked as team leader on the dust detector program, said CASPER has provided her an unusual opportunity.

"It's a big honor to be working with so many talented people," she said. "It's really neat to be able to say something we've done is going into space."

Cox said the opportunities opening up with CASPER and the BRIC are making her consider staying at Baylor for her graduate degree rather than moving to another university.

Laufer said he's not sure how long he will remain at Baylor, but he is excited about the opportunity to do research at the BRIC.

Laufer and three graduate students from the University of Stuttgart are working with the program as part of an ongoing relationship between their university and Baylor. The universities have collaborated through CASPER since the 2000s, starting with the SOFIA telescope project that L-3 helped build in Waco.

"We hope this is just the starting point for a long collaboration," Laufer said.