Editor’s note: Charlotte Beat is a regular feature on Wednesdays.At last week’s technology conference at UNC Charlotte, John Bardo, chancellor of Western Carolina University (WCU), surprised the audience when he told them that 9 million people and 12,000 high tech firms were located within a three-hour drive of the campus, located in Cullowhee.

“We’re 2-1/2 hours from Atlanta,” Bardo said. “So we need to rethink the way we deploy economic development efforts so it crosses state lines.”

Actually, WCU is reaching across the country in its efforts to become a high tech center to jump-start the economy of western North Carolina. In February, WCU received a $4.7 million federal grant — the largest in the university’s history — for a joint project with the University of Southern California (USC). Prototypes for fiber-optic connections designed at USC will be tested for practical applications in WCU’s Center for Rapid Prototyping.

The Center for Rapid Prototyping officially opened in April with more than $500,000 invested in equipment, such as precise measuring systems that use active scanning technology, 3-D modeling systems enabling the production of non-functioning prototype and fusion deposition modeling machinery used to create working prototypes. Later this year, the Center will move into the 28,000-square-foot, $8-million Workforce Leadership Development Center, now under construction.

(The Workforce Development Center is housing a cutting edge sound studio with a large format digital console designed for surround TV and DVD-A applications for use as a teaching tool. WCU is the first location in the U.S. to purchase this new piece of technology, and the university was featured in an article in Billboard Magazine.)

Bardo has said WCU is taking on the “moral obligation to do everything we can within our power to help this region develop economically so the sons and daughters of the mountains don’t have to leave to get good jobs.”

Working with Clemson, UNC Charlotte

Bardo knows to do so also means collaborating with other universities.

Last June, with $15 million in federal funds, WCU joined Clemson University and UNC Charlotte in forming the Carolinas Micro-Optic Triangle to conduct advanced research that will attract photonics and opto-electronic companies to the area. Through its Center for Integrate Technologies – formed in November 2001 through a partnership with UNC Charlotte – WCU will research part marking, injection molding, instrumentation and robotic assembly of optical units.

Time for commercialization

This week, Bardo is presenting a proposal to the WCU Board of Trustees to create an office of technology transfer. “It’s the first time we’ve had enough activity going on to be thinking about commercialization of the research being done here,” he says.

The university’s efforts are not going unnoticed. “WCU’s efforts are crucial to the regional economy of today and tomorrow, and I am very excited about the increase in funding for additional research being done there,” says Jim Roberts, executive director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council. “Chancellor Bardo and his staff have been active in participating in entrepreneur and venture capital conferences around the state. I hope the message will get out to the natives of the mountains that there is real momentum towards creating more career opportunities.”

Earlier this month, Bardo was one of several area leaders announcing the completion of the first phase of a federally funded fiber optic cable network. With the opening of the 1,600-square-foot MetaPoP (major point of presence on the Internet) linking western North Carolina to Washington, DC, the area will soon have the same type of Internet access as Charlotte and Research Triangle Park.

“The region is poised to prosper like never before,” he said.

Names in the News:

Frances Queen of Queen Associates, Inc., an IT services firm, was the only tech entrepreneur among the finalists announced last week for the 18th annual awards presented by the Charlotte Division of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Queen was one of three business owners named as a finalist for the Rising Star Award, which recognizes a woman who has owned her business for less than five years. The awards will be presented June 3.

Ashe Lockhart, who has served as interim director of the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council (MEC) since January, has gone back to lawyering full-time at Womble Carlyle. Lockhart, a major player in Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community, took over the helm while the organization conducted a national search. Terry Thorson came on board May 1, and he has been helping her with the transition. He will remain a member of the MEC board.