April 2, 2010

State Issue One extends, supports Ohio State's Third Frontier

Ohio's Wireless Future: When it comes to electronic gadgetry, we live in a whirlwind of change. Every year brings products that are smarter, faster, smaller and more powerful. And wireless. Don’t forget wireless.

Randy Moses, professor of electrical and computer engineering and interim associate dean for research in Ohio State’s College of Engineering, says, “My kids are 18. When they were two, I had a camcorder the size of a suitcase; now people use their iPhones. We used to have cassette tapes; now videos are stored on chips the size of your thumbnail.”

Moses thinks about wireless and the fast pace of change every day. He is Ohio State’s principal researcher for the Third Frontier-funded Institute for the Development and Commercialization of Advanced Sensor Technology (IDCAST). Led by the University of Dayton, with partners including Boeing, General Dynamics and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, IDCAST’s purpose is to serve as a sort of pace car in the race to the future of electronics.

Ohio is building on its strengths in sensor technology and wireless communications to fast-track basic research into commercial production. Some of the work is happening in Dayton, where Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has spawned the development of space-age sensors for military application. At Ohio State, Moses oversees advancements in RF, or radio frequency—wireless engineering technology.

“OSU has world-class capability in RF,” he says. “IDCAST is allowing us to modernize and expand and maintain our leadership and grow.” Third Frontier funding is erecting a new electroscience building at Ohio State and has upgraded other existing facilities to continue to attract to Ohio the best faculty and students in the country.

Today’s biggest challenge in RF, Moses says, is capacity-building, as more and more people demand more and more from their Blackberries or iPhones. “In 1980 nobody had a cell phone, now everybody does. Once they were talking, now they’re watching movies,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling.” Cell phones also now serve as personal global positioning systems. In the larger world of wireless, these functions become essential to disaster relief, hurricane monitoring, even terrorist spotting.

So the work going on at Ohio State may end up in your pocket or purse as an improved cell phone, with longer battery life and better performance. Or the application may be more esoteric, resulting in sophisticated wireless transmitters and receivers resulting in better and faster military intelligence. Or we might find it showing up at disaster sites, as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took 25 satellite cell phones to Chile after an earthquake downed cell towers.

IDCAST is not only about basic research and innovation, after all. Third Frontier projects are about collaboration and commercialization, too. New equipment funded by IDCAST is shared by other universities. Working with its partners, Ohio State also is helping fulfill the vision of the Air Force Research Lab to make the Miami Valley into a Silicon Valley for sensors and wireless. “We’re growing small companies like crazy,” Moses says.

And here is where speed comes into it. The beauty of the Third Frontier program, he says, is, “It brings together a critical mass and accelerates commercialization. Without those things, others will get to the market ahead of you.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the ripple effects of this $3.7 million investment. “You get small companies to locate and grow here,” he says. “Then a new idea comes along and there’s someone to take it and run with it. It just grows on itself. You need to provide that initial punch, and that’s what the Third Frontier money did.”

State Issue 1, a measure to extend the Third Frontier program through 2016, has been placed on the May 4 ballot following a strong bipartisan vote of the Ohio General Assembly.  The ballot issue is supported by a statewide coalition of business, labor and university leaders.  Since the Third Frontier’s inception in 2002, grants awarded on a competitive basis to business, industry and universities for innovative projects have generated more than 48,000 Ohio jobs, according to an independent analysis.