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RALEIGH, N.C. -
N.C. State's innovative hub, announced Jan. 15 by President Barack Obama, is on a rapid path to development and could be operating by the late spring, a key NCSU leader said Wednesday.
N.C. State did not announce a timeline for the Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute when Obama made the announcement on the Wolfpack campus. The hub will include at least $70 million in federal dollars and another $70 million from universities, businesses and the state.
Events are already moving swiftly. Terri Lomax, NCSU's vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development, told WNCN Wednesday that, "We'd hope to have it up and running in the late spring."
"It's a big responsibility," Lomax said. "We want to jump in there and do the best possible job we can."
Lomax said N.C. State's Dennis Kekas, who is now the executive director of the Institute for Next Generation IT Systems, was named the interim executive director and that a full-time executive director will be hired.
"He's the perfect person to get this start-up off the ground," Lomax said.
"One of the things we do best here is industrial-university consortia. We feel really lucky to have the perfect person to kick this off."
The institute will be housed on Centennial Campus, either in an existing building or one already planned. Asked when the institute will be fully operational, Lomax said, "I'd hope by next fall."
Lomax said multiple companies have been expressing interest in the hub since the announcement.
While the Jan. 15 announcement came as a stunning boost for N.C. State, Lomax said the school had been working on the hub since the federal government announced the opportunity in May.
"Once we saw the details, we said, ‘Hey, this is one that's right in the sweet spot at N.C. State,'" she said.
N.C. State submitted its application Sept. 26.
There was no movement for months, and then a flurry of activity in the weeks before the announcement.
Just before Christmas, the federal government submitted questions – a sign that the feds were interested, but they needed information right away.
"That ruined a lot of people's Christmas vacations, getting all that done," Lomax quipped.
"And then the day after New Year's, they called and said they wanted to come down and start negotiating," Lomax said. "That was a good sign."
In fact, the federal officials were at N.C. State for talks the next day.
On Jan. 9, Lomax looked down at her cell phone and saw a call from "unknown number."
She answered it – and it was the White House.
"They said they were looking at several sites to make an announcement and were very interested in N.C. State and would be down that afternoon," she said.
Suddenly, Lomax knew the innovation hub would really happen at N.C. State.
"I was pretty sure before the White House called," she said. "But then my confidence went way up."
And so began a whirlwind week, during which N.C. State was negotiating with the Department of Energy on key details while also working out a presidential visit.
"We were in a big hurry to get the White House all the information," she said. "We were also frantically getting the negotiations to the point where the Department of Energy felt comfortable making the announcement."
The hub could be transformational for N.C. State. By comparison, the biggest gift to N.C. State was the $50 million for the Park Scholars program Sept. 27; before that, it was the $40 million from Raleigh's Poole family for the College of Management and the golf course clubhouse in December 2010.
How much it changes N.C. State remains to be seen, but Lomax believes it will enhance State's relationships with other universities, as well as with the small- and medium-sized manufacturing enterprises across North Carolina.
She also saw the announcement as a capstone of a long N.C. State push in this sector of technology.
"It's really based on 30 years of building up this area of expertise," she said. "It's not something that came out of the blue."
N.C. State, she said, had already been working in power electronics, with semiconductors and wide bandgap semiconductors. And that long history of understanding of the issue is what got the federal government's attention – and led to the stunning collaboration.
"It was not only our faculty expertise but also our industry collaboration in this area," she said. "Without that basis, we could have never put together something of this scale without the relationships we already have."