A highly touted venture between Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology and George Mason University to provide local businesses with access to supercomputers suffered an embarrassing blow as program coordinators were forced to cancel two sessions this week because fewer than 50 organizations signed up.
The symposia -- scheduled at George Mason yesterday and at the College of William & Mary tomorrow -- were intended to introduce local businessmen to the $27 million Cray X-MP/24 supercomputer. When the supercomputer program was originally announced in August, George Mason and CIT anticipated that more than 400 companies would register for the seminars.
Working with a supercomputer provided by Boeing Computer Services, a subsidiary of the aircraft company, the $600,000 venture was supposed to give area companies guidance on how to exploit supercomputers -- which can perform hundreds of millions of calculations a second. They are powerful tools for design work, engineering simulations and dozens of other mathematically complex applications.
The venture is part of Virginia's continuing efforts to position itself as a state on the cutting edge of technology. The CIT was created to foster high-technology activities in the state, but it has come under political attack as having an unfocused mission and lack of experience.
"We didn't get the response that we had planned on," said John Salley, CIT's vice president for administration, "We may have been overly optimistic in the level of interest generally."
However, Salley and George Mason officials conceded that efforts to publicize and market the supercomputer service were inadequate.
"We just didn't find the market," said Frederick H. Siff, George Mason's senior vice president for computing and information systems. "I don't think it's appropriate to point fingers."
"There was probably some education that needed to be done to make people aware of how useful supercomputers could be to them," said George Mason's Gilley, "and we did not do that adequately. . . . I don't think [the cancellations are] a catastrophe."
According to both CIT and George Mason, the marketing efforts for the supercomputing symposia consisted of a press conference, "word of mouth" discussions and a 30,000-piece mailing of a brochure to local area subscribers of assorted high-technology publications at a total cost of roughly $30,000.
"They were kidding themselves if they thought a mailing was enough," said a president of a local high-technology consulting company who asked not to be identified. "You have to explain to people why they need to look into this technology for their business."
The program's coordinators say they will launch a new effort to talk to chief executive officers of local high-technology companies to spur interest in special workshops scheduled for January.
"We're going to target the subject matter and take a little less generic approach," said CIT's Salley.
"In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to the market," said GMU's Gilley. "We made the announcement and we thought the world would come to our door."