The download: College students present their tech ideas

By Steven Overly
Monday, February 28, 2011

Flanked by tables where area colleges touted graduate programs and technology being built in their labs, George Mason University doctoral student Cody Narber took the time to construct a digital peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

He laid out the bread, spun lids off the Jif and Smuckers jars, then spread out the fixings -- all using a haptic device and computer software that replicates the everyday task. Designed to mimic the physical dynamics of the process, such as weight, Narber hopes the software and similar programs he developed will one day help patients to rehabilitate fine motor and cognitive skills.

Narber was one of several presenters at the University Technology Exhibition, which the Northern Virginia Technology Council hosted Thursday at the Hilton Tysons Corner to give schools from across the Washington region an opportunity to bring public awareness to technology-in-development. Capital Business was one of the sponsors.

George Mason and George Washington University have begun to put greater emphasis on commercializing technology that's developed by students and professors as a possible source of revenue. Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, which were also among the schools in attendance, have already developed similar efforts.

"It's not just about the technologies, it's how do you get these technologies into the private sector," said Brian Darmody, the University of Maryland's associate vice president of research and economic development.

That was a topic of conversation back at the George Mason table, which also had faculty from the college's two-year-old computer game design program on hand. Students there have been designing video games for computers and television consoles, as well as increasingly popular smartphone platforms.

But opportunities outside of the entertainment gaming industry have also presented themselves, said Scott M. Martin, the program's director. Education, defense and health are among many sectors that look to gaming as a possible training tool, and he said the school has encouraged students to be entrepreneurial as they look for work.

"Gaming is simulation with rules and a scoring system, [so] you can do analysis long term," Martin said. "That's why gaming would be natural in all these other fields. Not all [students] want to work for an entertainment studio or as a contractor, they want to start their own companies."

Techies converge

TechNet, the bipartisan group that advocates for the "innovation economy" by representing the interests of technology companies in Washington, launched a nonprofit arm last week that creators said will rally top tech minds around some of the country's persistent social problems.

ConvergeUS aims to tackle three topics each year by bringing together 60 people from companies and other organizations for a day-and-a-half-long conference in Silicon Valley. The ideas will then be passed on to pre-screened organizations, such as other nonprofits or colleges, who will then have a year to act on them.

Wednesday's launch event at the Ronald Reagan Building attracted techies from both the Washington and Silicon Valley circuit, including ConvergeUS board member and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Rey Ramsey, TechNet's chief executive, said that the dearth of students in science, technology, engineering and math as well as the role of technology in early childhood parenting will be among the first topics addressed. The third has yet to be finalized.

"One of the things that's most exciting [about being an entrepreneur] is you can have a positive global impact, you can make money and you can have fun along the way, and I think that is the new definition for success," Stone said.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company