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Opportunity knocked: WVU to use Virgin Hyperloop collaboration as a springboard for student, faculty research, state economic development

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Fall color glows on the Downtown campus during the Covid-19 pandemic October, 2020. (WVU Photo/Greg Ellis)

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(Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final in a series of stories outlining contributions from the Rockefeller Neuroscience InstituteJohn Chambers College of Business and EconomicsStatler College of Engineering and others at WVU in this project.)

Gordon Gee needed a winner-take-all strategy that would buffet the Mountain State to the top of a 17-state heap of contenders for a futuristic project that pursues rapid transportation.

And as he looked at the playing field, as well as the Virgin Hyperloop prize, the West Virginia University president’s pièce de résistance might seem unusual: collaboration; however, it was one of the tickets that Richard Branson and his team punched when they chose Tucker and Grant counties for the location of the certification center for their research into moving people at 600 mph in pods, reducing travel times from Pittsburgh to Chicago to minutes.

“With only 1.8 million people, we have to collaborate—with public education, state government, business and industry,” Gee said. “None of us can go it alone, but together we can make a mighty force, a mighty wind, if you will.”

That mighty wind, now at his back as four WVU entities— the John Chambers School of Business and Economics and Vantage Ventures, the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute—begin the work of helping to develop the Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center, Gee is using that collaboration as a springboard that will benefit both WVU undergraduate and graduate students, as well as West Virginia in myriad ways.

Next level research

As an R1 institution, WVU’s experts are among the elite in the nation and bring in $195 million annually to the University in sponsored contracts and research grants. Those grants sustain a host of projects that affect West Virginians’—and Americans’—daily lives. From extracting Rare Earth Elements from coal to improving water quality and Appalachian food systems to measuring soils’ ability to absorb nutrients and using video games to help patients with nervous system trauma, researchers at WVU tackle macro- and the micro- quality of life issues. 

Some of the research potential with Virgin Hyperloop is a given: engineering, for instance.  

Fred King, WVU’s vice president for Research, said the potential for novel approaches to large scale construction, innovative materials that combine increased strength with decreased weight, and transportation for the smart cities of the future is a tremendous opportunity for both WVU and the region.

But possibilities for student and faculty research are nearly endless.

In Gee’s words, this “feat of humankind” is on a fast track to be up and going in the next several years. The genesis will give WVU students a bill of fare for research opportunities that will allow them to choose career paths with connections. And that opens doors for designers, marketers, political scientists, public relations managers, attorneys and geologists. 

“We have initiated conversations between the technical leadership at (Virgin) Hyperloop and our best and brightest researchers to identify areas of mutual interest,” King said. “We believe that our partnership can make this a win for Virgin Hyperloop, the University and the State of West Virginia.

“The potential. It will no doubt attract other innovative enterprises to our region.”

Spreading the wealth

The benefits of Virgin Hyperloop’s eventual arrival in West Virginia won’t be confined to WVU. Although Gee’s self-admitted “bad example” is an anchor store in a mall, his point is well taken.

“It gives us a wonderful opportunity to build around something new and creative,” Gee said. “(Virgin) Hyperloop is to ground transportation what Space X is to space exploration. It is a clear signal to West Virginians that we can compete.”

Perhaps that’s a new outlook for West Virginians as a people who often hope for the best while expecting the worst. Gee believes the hyperloop project is one the entire state—from its leadership to its workforce—can both support and depend on.

“Virgin Hyperloop is a fantastic example of how leaders in our state should think outside of the box to find new and different economic development opportunities that play to West Virginia’s natural strengths,” John Deksins, director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said. “The facility itself will generate important economic benefits for West Virginia. But perhaps the largest benefit will be the facility’s precedent in showing that our state can land cutting edge economic opportunities that provide much needed economic diversification.”

Even for state residents who aren’t a hands-on part of the project from construction to implementation, Virgin Hyperloop will expand the breadth of economic development in the surrounding area, as well as shore up the state budget.

“The Hyperloop will undoubtedly help support additional local businesses such as local restaurants, breweries, entertainment venues, etc., through an economic multiplier effect,” Deskins continued. “Further, this enhancement in economic activity will bolster tax revenue, helping to improve infrastructure and other public amenities, and therefore building economic momentum for the area.”

Moving mountains

Gee said the “Big Cs”—collaboration, courage and coordination of curiosity—speak to a culture that requires talent, but that talent without that culture is wasted.

“I think the big advantage of collaboration is power in many, power in ideas,” he said.

That fits in with one of Gee’s favorite topics, the land grant mission of WVU, to promote education and better living in all 55 West Virginia counties.

“It is a clear signal to West Virginians that we can have a much brighter future if we take advantage of the quality of our lives, the quality of our mountains, the quality of our universities,” Gee said. “Virgin Hyperloop is an example of kind of future the state can have— an anchor where its fortunes don’t sway in the wind.”



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