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Region's Universities Raise Their Tech IQ

· Virginia Tech, a great research machine and brand name whose economic impact, and whose ability to attract top students and researchers, has been limited by its location in rural Blacksburg.

· George Mason University, whose president, Alan Merten, has the best feel of any of the region's college leaders about the interplay of universities and the economy.

It remains to be seen how serious these institutions will be about collaboration and whether they'll get the financial and political support they need from the business community and government leaders. But the good news is that they now understand that their individual success is tied, in significant part, to creating a vibrant high-tech cluster in the region that can compete successfully for global talent and capital.

As it happens, several of these universities are also pushing ahead with a number of other initiatives that hold the promise of significant economic spinoff.

The University of Maryland has snagged an important anchor tenant for its new research campus at College Park: IARPA, which will do for intelligence research what DARPA did for basic research in the defense arena and which should attract dozens of private contractors into its orbit.

And in a few weeks, Virginia Tech will announce its intention to build a new research center in Arlington, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, where it will conduct cutting-edge research in bioinformatics, biomedicine and management of the national energy grid. Virginia Tech already offers more than a dozen graduate programs at campuses in Alexandria and Falls Church, but the new research center represents a conscious strategy on the part of President Charles Steger to increase his university's footprint in the Washington area.

Even more ambitious is a plan being put together by Hopkins, along with the University of Maryland and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, to create a 600-acre "life sciences city" in Shady Grove. It would be home to an expanded hospital complex, government and academic research labs, biotech companies and incubators, and a range of academic programs. But it would also include housing, retail and restaurants, parks, and public transportation infrastructure to transform what is now a collection of office parks into something more like an urban academic community.

At the center of the effort are 108 acres of cattle farmland, known as the Belward Farm, that Hopkins purchased nearly 20 years ago from Elizabeth Banks for $5 million. As part of a new master plan for the area, the state and county have agreed to make changes in plans for a new highway and transit line to accommodate the new complex. When completed, the project would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new private investment, create space for tens of thousands of new workers and students, and be home to thousands of new residents.

The theory behind the Shady Grove "life sciences city" is that the most vibrant tech clusters are those in which students, teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs and government officials can easily and informally rub shoulders, exchange ideas and hatch bold, ambitious plans. That's what makes places like Cambridge and Palo Alto so successful and so attractive, and what's largely been missing from the local tech scene.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

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