Texas A&M boosts image with financial gains
University research adds high-tech jobs, income to home city
Clarification: A story on Monday's Nation pages about low unemployment in College Station, Texas, because of high-tech spinoffs from Texas A&M University identified the University of Texas in Austin as the state's flagship public university. Both are flagships of separate university systems. The University of Texas at Austin is the flagship of the University of Texas system; Texas A&M is the flagship of the Texas A&M University system.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M University, located in this sleepy city of 74,000 surrounded by bucolic farmland, is accustomed to its students being the butt of jokes told by urbane Texans, like the one about the Aggie who got fired from the M&M factory because he kept throwing out the W's.
But Texas A&M got the last laugh, last year anyway, when College Station had the lowest unemployment rate of any metropolitan area in the country -- largely because of quality jobs created in high-tech spinoffs from research done at the engineering powerhouse.
The home of the disparaged Aggies recorded the nation's lowest unemployment for nine months of 2004, and tied for the lowest in the other three. While the nation's unemployment rate was 5.5 percent last year, College Station averaged just under 2 percent, or full employment as defined by economists.
Three small college towns with big state universities fared almost as well: Columbia, Mo. (University of Missouri), Gainesville, Fla. (University of Florida), and Charlottesville, Va. (University of Virginia). Unlike College Station, though, those cities are home to the flagship public university in the state, which in Texas would be the University of Texas in Austin, 110 miles away from College Station.
''College Station doesn't have a strong identity outside the university," conceded Charles Wood, the city's assistant director for economic development. ''The main campus is our central business district. But the newest trend is growth outside of the university, tied to research there."
Texas A&M, with its 45,000 students, last year generated a direct economic impact on the College Station area of $941.2 million, an increase of $40 million over the previous year, according to the university. Payroll alone accounted for $646.7 million pumped into the local economy. Texas A&M has hired an additional 140 faculty members in the past few years and plans to add another 250 by September to improve its teacher-student ratio.
A major development was the launching in August of A&M's Technology Commercialization Center, charged with turning research into marketable products and money for the university and new business ventures. Campus research has reached $500 million a year. ''What we're doing is providing services necessary to go from concept to market," said Guy K. Diedrich, the center's managing director. ''We're a hidden jewel. A&M has not been picked over. We have some extraordinary technology just waiting to be commercialized."
Last year, A&M earned $7 million in royalties from its research-related products, which Diedrich acknowledges is far less than many top-tier universities. But state law only recently granted the university's board permission to pursue commercialization ventures. ''Come back and see me in five years, and you will see a dramatically different landscape," he said.
While Diedrich may work with companies that locate elsewhere, he is attuned to ''creating jobs and opportunities" in the College Station area. ''One of our goals is to provide a home for Aggies graduating, where they can stay in Bryan-College Station and build a business and not have to go to Houston or Dallas to make their fortunes." Bryan is College Station's sister city.
This year, Bryan-College Station, like other metropolitan districts, has slipped in the unemployment rankings because of technical changes made in computations by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, doubling its jobless rate to 4 percent or more in each of the first three months of 2005. But Wood said there have been no major disruptions in the local economy and it is still humming. Other college towns dominate the latest list of metropolitan areas with the lowest rates, including Charlottesville, Va.; Gainesville, Fla.; and Ithaca, N.Y., home to Cornell University.
In College Station, several technological companies have found homes in Texas A&M University Research Park, a cluster of new buildings along a jogging trail and stream next to the university. Michael Jacox, president and founder of StarVision Technologies, said it was natural for him to pick the research park for his fledgling company's home ''because of the collaboration with the faculty and using students as employees."
Jacox's company has bold plans for expansion by turning intelligent-vision technology into consumer products. For the first time in his career, Jacox jokes, he is working on a product his teenage children find cool -- the Star Tagger, a laser gun that identifies by name any star it is aimed at in the night sky.
''We plan to stay here and we plan to grow. We expect to grow a lot," said Jacox, who has 10 full-time employees. ''We think we're going to be doing $200 million in revenue in five to six years, with 300 to 600 employees."
Jacox, a former Texas A&M professor and National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer, said he would like to stay in College Station mostly because of a huge pool of cheap talent -- the university's engineering students. ''It's like having 'The Apprentice' show going on year-round. They work part time, and it's like a year-round job interview," he said.
Oliver J. Murphy, a native of Ireland, came to Texas A&M for postdoctoral study in electrochemistry in 1980, and now is president of LynnTech Inc., a technology company with 120 employees, 30 of them A&M students, in the research park.
He, too, noted ''a rich talent force," unusual for a city of College Station's size, from the university. With Austin, Dallas, and Houston only a car drive away, Murphy said he and his employees can enjoy big-city amenities like professional sports and theater, ''yet live in a small town. It's an idyllic kind of place."
LynnTech's first projects involved fuel cell research, which spun off Fideris Inc., a company now located in Lowell, Mass., that specializes in fuel cell testing. Murphy remains a part owner of Fideris.
Murphy said LynnTech is working in tandem with Massachusetts General Hospital on a ''light-initiated" cream that will fight infections without the use of antibiotics. Another project is the exploration of a ''smart bomb" type of seek-and-destroy radiation for cancer therapy, he said. ''We're looking for things that are beneficial to people," he said. ''Things that make a quantum leap to the future."
Governor Rick Perry is trying to get the Texas Legislature to approve a $150 million Emerging Technology Fund to assist research and business ventures. ''It could serve Texas well in the decades to come," Murphy said.
Aggies are known for their tight-knit culture in which they mentor one another after graduation. If Perry has $150 million at his disposal for high-tech research and commercialization ventures, A&M's engineers may again get the last laugh: The governor is an Aggie.