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Industrial husbandry Featured

9:47am EDT July 22, 2002
An exciting new technology — bearing the seeds of a potentially gigantic industrial harvest — is taking root in the region within the fertile confines of what has been dubbed the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse.

During the past decade, Pittsburgh-area businesses and entrepreneurs have had more than their share of conferences, committees, partnerships, alliances and other aggregations of experts seeking to nurture high technology — as if it were a commodity. The Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, unveiled in June 1999, is something else entirely.

The local entrepreneurial ranks may soon rejoice and worship at the new Greenhouse because of its tightly focused, single-minded goal of growing one specific cash crop: the new “System-on-a-Chip (SOC)” technology.

Planting the seeds of growth and prosperity

Leading the charge in this nonprofit organization, funded in part by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and a consortium of private-sector members, is Dennis Yablonsky. Yablonsky, former president and CEO of Carnegie Group Inc., is president and CEO of the Digital Greenhouse.

He’s working with a host of companies which are among the who’s who of the nation’s high-tech industries. Among them are international giants Cadence Design Systems Inc., Casio Computer Co.,Ltd., Cisco Systems Inc., Oki Electric Industry Co. and Sony Corp. Academic members include Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Civic, business and professional organization members include the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Local associate members include Neo Linear Inc., Pittsburgh, which develops and markets software tools for the design of mixed-signal integrated circuits; Videon-Central Inc., State College, a provider of digital video hardware and software designs for the computer and consumer industries; and Sima Products Corp., Oakmont, an innovator in consumer electronic accessories.

“The Digital Greenhouse was born out of a corporate demand for an integrated environment that enables innovation and sustains new product development,” Yablonsky says. “Each component works in synergy, creating an ideal environment for forward-looking companies. Every angle of research, product development and marketing has been considered in planning the ideal environment for the 21st century SOC-based product design.”

The Digital Greenhouse is designed to operate through five distinct but interrelated programs:

Electronic Design Technology Development Program — This is the key building block. It will provide research funds, expertise from Greenhouse leaders and project management to facilitate breakthroughs in focused intellectual property (IP) applications for digital video and digital networks.

Electronic Design Education Program — This will develop courseware and training modules for the retraining of electrical engineering and computer science personnel in SOC technology. It also will create a joint degree program among academic participants.

Electronic Infusion Program — This is a new technology concept centered on sending highly specialized teams into medium- and large-sized companies to identify opportunities for the use of electronics to add value to existing products.

Intellectual Property Exchange Program — This responds to a need for commercializing intellectual property available at local universities and high-tech companies. The center will develop the standards and processes to exchange intellectual property and develop marketing plans and alliances with similar R&D groups around the world.

Complex Support Program — This will be housed in a facility with highly secure electronic infrastructure that enables technology companies to efficiently transmit their product to supplying, collaborating and user companies. It will connect organizations within the Digital Greenhouse to suppliers, collaborators and users outside the region. Companies involved will have access to a telecommunication test-bed environment. Access to venture capital will be provided through the Complex Support Program.

How the technology works

Charles Brandt, PhD, chief technical officer for the Greenhouse, describes the infant technology this way: “SOC integrates many functional systems directly on a single chip to more efficiently control the features of the product into which it is incorporated. For example, designers previously would use one chip for memory and another chip for data processing, and so on, all within a single device. SOC eliminates that process by combining these various functions in a single microchip.

“Smaller, faster and more affordable smart products — from integrated data, cable and cell phones to wireless handheld devices for voice, fax and data — are in the works,” Brandt continues. “These, and others not yet imagined, are examples of digital consumer devices enhanced by the addition of an SOC microchip.

SOC also will allow designers to bring products to market faster and cheaper.

“Previously, chip designers would start from scratch when developing a product. But SOC technology allows designers to mix and match capabilities — sort of like building blocks — rather than having to come up with a whole new chip at the outset.”

Before joining the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse as its science guru in October, Brandt was a researcher at the Northrop Grumman Science & Technology Center in Pittsburgh for 11 years, most recently as manager of the microelectronics department. He will coordinate the Greenhouse’s Electronic Design Technology Development Program.

Something for everybody

Digital Greenhouse marketing literature describes the organization as “an attempt to leverage the region’s existing assets to create an SOC cluster that initially focuses on the digital video and digital networking markets, but will ultimately come up with new ways to put innovations like SOC to work to develop a wide range of next-generation products.”

The Digital Greenhouse is held up as a new model of public, private and academic business and technological initiatives designed to foster the growth of smart products in Western Pennsylvania. The aim is to generate, in one environment, the essential components which support SOC development and technology.

Among its greatest benefits to industry leaders that join, Yablonsky says, is that they gain access to an unprecedented concentration of highly specialized resources specifically geared toward SOC design. And they’ll be able to work toward establishing a set of standards and an efficient market for reused intellectual property. They also will help create a pool of engineering talent with special training in repurposing intellectual property.

For these corporate giants, the technology-friendly environment described by Yablonsky means access to streamlined legal frameworks, intellectual property valuation models and technical practices which will reduce intellectual property lead-time transactions.

Regional businesses that join will enjoy the influx of companies attracted by the Greenhouse. That means more buyers and sellers, more intellectual property availability and a more robust intellectual property market. These firms are expected to work through the Greenhouse toward building a standard methodology for reusable intellectual property and construct an electronic infrastructure that enables such property to be easily bought and sold among participating companies.

Local start-up companies likewise will get a reliable framework for sustained growth as well as special access to specialized design software, venture capital funding for SOC-related businesses and support services such as marketing, finance and legal assistance.

The Harrisburg perspective

Gov. Tom Ridge has been a prime mover in the creation of the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, putting up state funds to launch the initiative and traveling to Japan and throughout the United States to attract ideas and members.

“The world has taken notice of the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse,” Ridge said recently. “Unlike traditional economic development strategies which focus on the attraction of individual companies while placing the emphasis on bricks and mortar, the Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse gives Pennsylvania a competitive advantage by establishing a total and unique environment for the 21st century electronics industry.”

Ridge’s hope is that it will give Pennsylvania the high-tech credit he says it deserves.

“World-class firms now recognize what we have known for some time — Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania are forces to be reckoned with in today’s high-tech economy,” Ridge says. “We seek to create the greenhouse of tomorrow to grow the products we’ll all use tomorrow and the high-tech jobs we need to ensure Pittsburgh’s prosperity into the 21st century.”

How to reach: The Pittsburgh Digital Greenhouse, (412) 201-3423

William McCloskey is a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh.