High-tech hopes

It may be too soon to tell whether cutting-edge technologies will prove to be the tourniquet that stanches Western North Carolina’s continuing hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs. But if not, it won’t be for want of trying. As the new year begins, a variety of high-tech programs and projects are moving ahead.

In late December, AdvantageWest, a public/private regional economic-development organization serving 23 WNC counties, announced that the Charleston, S.C.-based Navigational Sciences plans to invest $2 million to establish a technical-operations center in Buncombe County. Initially, the new facility will employ 12 people.

Navigational Sciences specializes in marine data, GIS, satellite imagery and mapping. According to AdvantageWest, which recruited the company, Navigational Sciences chose the greater-Asheville area due to its “superior digital infrastructure, quality of life and support for entrepreneurial businesses available through AdvantageWest and its subsidiaries (the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and the Blue Ridge Angel Investors Network).”

AdvantageWest and Buncombe County each contributed $25,000 to an incentives package for the company. The city of Asheville also participated in the original proposal. “Navigational Sciences may choose to locate inside the city, and the city may choose to incentivize that decision,” Mark Owen, director of communications and research at AdvantageWest, told Xpress. “Those talks are going on separately from negotiations with the county.”

Asked about the matter, City Manager Jim Westbrook said, “We are considering an economic-develoment incentive grant.”

Jim Roberts, executive director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council, is excited about the announcement. “This is a big day for us,” he said. “If we can attract and grow this kind of company in Western North Carolina, we’ll transform our economy and create new opportunities for our future.”

Meanwhile, Western Carolina University has announced the creation of two new technology-based research facilities: the Center for Broadband Applications and the Center for Adaptive Devices.

“The Broadband Center will study a wide range of high-tech applications, from such medical uses as providing real-time data and information-sharing [with] hospitals to such entertainment functions as real-time gaming,” explains Bill Studenc, director of news services at Western. Faculty and students in a wide variety of fields — such as technology, graphic arts, computer science, engineering, business and communications — are expected to be involved in the effort.

The Center for Adaptive Services will work to develop high-tech solutions to problems faced by older people and those with physical impairments. The center will also collaborate with the College of Education and Allied Professions and the engineering-and-technology department at Western to develop cost-effective devices that handicapped children in grades K-12 can use in the classroom.

In yet another practical application of high-tech, Western and A-B Tech recently embarked on a joint research project with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and American Carolina Stamping, a manufacturing company based in Etowah. The project is developing a control system for a device that will function as both a home water heater and a dehumidifier. Preliminary tests suggest that it would use about half as much energy as current systems (see “WCU and A-B Tech in Hot Water,” Sept. 1, 2004, Xpress).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. On Jan. 28, the WNC Center for Technology Commercialization in Enka will host an Energy Efficiency Technology and Business Fair showcasing nearly 300 technologies developed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Clemson University, the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech. The full-day program aims to “link entrepreneurs, inventors and existing businesses with individuals and organizations that will help commercialize those resources,” according to the organizers.

Thanks to a federal grant, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial businesses that are serious candidates for licensing will be admitted free of charge if they register in advance on the center’s Web site (www.wncctc.org). Otherwise, the registration fee is $200 for private businesses and $50 for nonprofit and public-sector employees.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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