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Arrowhead Research Park viewed as R&D hub for space industry

LAS CRUCES - When the Rocket Racing League opens development operations at Arrowhead Research Park later this year as planned, it could usher in an avalanche of space-related research and development activity at the budding business incubator, say industry leaders and New Mexico State University officials.



Gracy Varughese tests water for pollutants at a laboratory at Interlab, one of the 15 companies currently housed at NMSU's Genesis Center at Arrowhead Research Park. (NMSU photo by J. Victor Espinoza)


"The university has an unprecedented opportunity to turn its research park into the state's premiere R&D hub for aerospace industries," said Granger Whitelaw, the Racing League's chief executive officer. "NMSU officials share our vision of the park as a major cornerstone for other businesses to build up around us in collaboration with what we do. We envision a 'Microsoft effect,' a steady, critical mass build-up."

As southern New Mexico's only existing business incubator, NMSU's research park already hosts 15 high-tech startup businesses that are developing a variety of new technologies, ranging from an over-the-counter genetic testing kit to a portable device that detects arsenic in drinking water.

But with the business buzz generated by the future spaceport, a vision also is emerging that places the park at the epicenter of space-related R&D, said Kevin Boberg, director of NMSU's Arrowhead Center Inc and associate dean of the College of Business Administration and Economics.

"The spaceport is still three to five years away, but there's a critical need for R&D today," Boberg said. "Even when the spaceport opens, technology won't remain stagnant, it needs to continually evolve. The Arrowhead Park is in a unique position to provide the services aerospace companies need to develop new technologies."

Located at the southern end of campus, the park offers direct access to scientists and infrastructure, including high-tech engineering facilities, chemical and natural resource labs, and computer and information services. For evolving technologies, that's exactly what businesses look for in an incubator park, Whitelaw said.

"To do research and development in collaboration with the university is extremely advantageous," Whitelaw said. "It gives access to faculty and students and all the college departments and laboratories. It also allows businesses to combine R&D with job creation and education, which are key components for successful commercialization of new technology."

The park includes 257 acres of available land with substantial water rights, said park director Maureen Camunez. The area is sandwiched between Interstate 25 on the east and Interstate 10 on the west, offering rapid highway access to the international airport in El Paso and White Sands Missile Range.

Given the park's advantages, Arrowhead now has a waiting list of high-tech startups that want to get in, including some companies connected to the X-Prize Cup competition, Camunez said.

"We had to turn away six different companies in recent months because we don't yet have the infrastructure in place to accommodate them," she said.

Only 18 acres have been leased since the park's creation in 1989. The developed area has three 10,000-square-foot buildings, which together make up the Genisis Center that houses current tenants, Camunez said.

To expand capacity, the business college has written a new development plan that calls for construction of another 40,000-square-foot building, said Garrey Carruthers, business college dean and NMSU's vice provost for economic development.

"We're overbooked right now, but as we expand infrastructure, we'll market the research park to companies worldwide," Carruthers said. "We have a broad range of scientific expertise to offer."

The plan calls for extensive landscaping, road development, and recreational facilities to turn the park into a welcoming southern entrance to campus, Carruthers said. "We see that whole area as an economic development center providing research services to businesses and education and jobs for students."

NMSU will seek private developers to construct the new incubator facility in return for shared ownership of the property, Carruthers said.

For its part, the Rocket Racing League plans to build its own 10,000-square-foot research and development center at Arrowhead, said Tim Gormley, the league's chief operating officer.

The league is developing low-altitude, rocket-powered aircraft for sky racing in conjunction with the X Prize Cup. Its main headquarters will be located near the Las Cruces airport, but most research will be handled at the league's Arrowhead facility.

"We need to develop and improve airframes, propulsion, avionics and camera-related technology," Gormley said. "To do that, we want access to the facilities and services Arrowhead offers."
The league's research will usher in new academic programs, internships and jobs, Gormley said.

"We'll set up a video lab for students to work on imaging programs needed to create virtual racetracks in the sky," he said. "That's new technology we're developing, and it could lead to a whole new degree program around video games."

As more aerospace companies set up shop, Boberg said the park will provide virtual, real-time education for the global space industry.

"We need to train pilots, mechanics, engineers and others," Boberg said. "We see Arrowhead becoming a corporate-led learning laboratory where new knowledge and education is beamed out across the globe."