Economic development and higher education supported by G2 Ops

Morris Foster and Larry Filer of Old Dominion University write in The Virginian Pilot about the importance of links between universities, economic development and companies like G2 Ops for making entrepreneurship, innovation and venture creation part of a community’s DNA.

SHOULD UNIVERSITIES play a role in regional economic development? The easy answer is yes. At Old Dominion University, we view entrepreneurship, innovation and venture creation as part of our DNA. We don’t see academic rigor and regional economic development as mutually exclusive. This mindset allows us to extend the university’s role in the economy beyond supplying the labor market with quality graduates.

A research university such as ODU can play a key role by bringing together multiple people on specific regional initiatives. ODU has done that in regard to coastal resilience and so was well prepared to expand that approach into economic development. Universities are ready-made regional conveners, offering hundreds of smart faculty members who are experts on various subject matters, thousands of students who are future members of the workforce and innovative physical spaces in which to work. In addition, research universities often can provide more services to business and industry than can local governments with limited bandwidths.

The GO Virginia initiative provides a wonderful example of the power of combining higher education with private- and public-sector partners to solve problems. GO Virginia is a statewide program passed by the General Assembly in 2016 to fund projects that will result in job growth in each of the commonwealth’s nine regions. In the first round of funding, 12 proposals were submitted from five of those nine regions. Five proposals, or slightly less than half, were funded. Two of them — in cybersecurity/data analytics and digital shipbuilding — were from the Hampton Roads region and received the most GO funding in the first round. Both proposals were coordinated by Old Dominion.

 ODU helped initiate the proposals with its partners nearly two years before the first GO application deadlines. These working groups included private-sector companies, public school systems (including Virginia Beach, Hampton and Newport News), community colleges (including Thomas Nelson Community College and Tidewater Community College), and universities (the College of William & Mary), localities (Suffolk, Portsmouth, Hampton and Newport News), business associations and nonprofits.

The two applications, facilitated by ODU’s Virginia Modeling, Analytics, and Simulation Center, succeeded because they were true consensus efforts that were built from the bottom up.

Each working group began with existing ODU partners — companies such as G2 Ops, Sera-Brynn and SimIS in the case of cyber/data analytics, and Newport News Shipbuilding and Virginia Ship Repair Association in the case of digital shipbuilding — and snowballed as those partners identified other stakeholders to bring into the effort. They shaped proposals that took advantage of regional strengths and identified gaps to be filled. This open, organic process allowed us to put together applications that were successful because they represented clear-eyed regional consensuses rather than aspirational magical bullets.

 The GO process itself was data-driven. At the regional and state levels, applications were evaluated on empirical economic metrics rather than political and geographical considerations. It turns out that developing an effective regional economic development project is not the same thing as achieving an agreement among the 17 jurisdictions in Hampton Roads. While agreements among jurisdictions certainly can affect regional economic development, there are other ways to drive that development that may better align with underlying economic realities. Universities can serve as an anchor in that process.

The GO-funded cyber/data analytics project, which includes an unmanned vehicle component, will extend the scope of ODU’s initial regional partnership, which was formed to aid in collaboration, workforce development, jobs creation and innovation. The digital shipbuilding project, which has a strong foundation in modeling and simulation, will create multi-level training programs and a state-of-the-art laboratory to keep Hampton Roads at the forefront of military and commercial shipbuilding and repair.

ODU will continue to serve as a regional site for GO Virginia as well as other state and federal funding opportunities that can make a difference for our regional economy. Other areas of emphasis already in the works include maritime trade and technology (based around the Port of Virginia), water technologies (commercializing the region’s resilience efforts) and advanced manufacturing (building on existing strengths in modeling and simulation). We’ll bring together similar working groups in each of these areas. Those interested in taking part should contact one of us.

ODU’s success as an institution of higher education is inextricably tied to the economic health of the Hampton Roads region. The university stands with the region and its many private- and public-sector actors in their commitment to grow the regional economy and make Hampton Roads the destination of choice for businesses and families looking for a growing economy, as well as college-bound students from across the nation hungry for an entrepreneurial approach to higher education.

Morris Foster ( is vice president for research at Old Dominion University. Larry “Chip” Filer ( is associate vice president for economic development and entrepreneurship at Old Dominion University.