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Geeks to the Rescue
 
Published Friday, September 4, 2009 7:00 am
by ERIKA COHEN

Ted Henry is on pleasure overload these days. An engineer at Ektron in Nashua, he's designing the company's first iPhone application for its social networking software. Henry's work is a labor of love-giving him a chance to work on the newest hottest thing. For Ektron, Henry's work provides the company a competitive advantage.

And in this economy, it isn't superheroes swooping in to save the day, but guys with highwater pants and innovative ideas who will jumpstart the economy. Suddenly it's cool to be a geek.

Henry says geeks are the brains behind emerging technologies such as Twitter, which played a critical role in reporting Iranian elections. Geeks design armor and missile systems that keep soldiers safe. And geeks design the infrastructure needed for NH's economy to function.

Oh, and all that innovation contributes to above average wages. In the third quarter of 2008, engineers in NH made on average twice as much as other private sector jobs, according to the

Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau at NH Employment Security.
So it's no surprise that economists point to engineers as rays of light. "The bright spot for the economy is technological entrepreneurship and innovation," says Ross Gittell, The James R. Carter professor at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at the University of NH in Durham. "The innovations that drive the NH economy ... will be the technological improvements that help businesses, government and people do things better and more efficiently."

Problems Today, Solutions Tomorrow
Today's biggest challenges include energy and health care, and in both fields, engineers are answering the call. In the case of energy, money follows.

During a 15-month period ending March 2008, 75 percent of the 170 energy-related startup companies nationally receiving venture capital funding had at least one founder that was an engineer. Joseph J. Helble, the dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, who helped conduct that research, says engineers play a crucial role as problem solvers. "These are problems that are very technical, and being an engineer is almost necessary to address them," he says.

Helble says renewable energy and engineering in medicine are so critical that Dartmouth has built engineering curriculum programs that emphasize those areas.

And opportunities abound for engineering graduates. Portsmouth-based Powerspan develops pollution control systems for power plants including carbon dioxide capture technologies. It recently closed $50 million in new financing. It also added 30 jobs in the last 18 months, bringing its workforce to 70.

"We all want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but we still need to keep the lights on and provide the power that businesses need," says Phillip Boyle, president and chief operating officer of Powerspan. "You can't convert to wind and solar power overnight or even over many years. So someone has to come up with a reasonable economic way to meet the climate challenge."

Those types of projects, Gittell says, will lead NH out of the current recession, as will health care advances.

"After the early 1990s deep recession it was more information technology, new software and hardware," he says of the sectors that helped pulled NH up. "Coming out of this recession, it's going to be new kinds of technology-quite a bit of it will be related to energy efficiency and the so-called
green economy."

On the Front Lines
Whether it's designing and engineering local roads, bridges and wastewater treatment plants or improving body armor and weapons for soldiers fighting worldwide, engineers are on the front lines when it comes to safety and protection.

At the federal level, that mostly means funds for defense-related technologies. In fiscal year 2008, NH received more than $50 million for defense-related research and development projects according to nonprofit Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America (ASTRA) in Washington, D.C.

BAE Systems, which has more than 4,700 NH employees, received the largest chunk of that money. Engineering and innovation is the lifeblood of BAE Systems, says Clark Freise, vice president and general manager of technology solutions for BAE's Technology Solutions business area in Merrimack. The military and "war fighters," as BAE refers to soldiers, need better, lighter and more efficient capabilities as the face of war and conflict changes. And Freise says the military needs those capabilities to fit within its current "platforms," whether that is a plane, tank or even soldiers. "We're looking at enhancing the extended capability of platforms [through the use of our technology]. It's a unique engineering feat," he says.

BAE received a $33.6 million contract in June to provide U.S. Navy fighter aircraft with electronic defenses against radar-guided missiles. Freise says engineers are critical for such jobs, adding that the lives of soldiers depend on them. "If you don't have that engineering capability, you can't protect [soldiers] through time."

Small engineering companies are providing equally critical defense technologies, for both soldiers and more locally, police in the United States. Ceradyne-Diaphorm in Salem has only 15 employees, but its technology includes thermal plastic composite ballistic helmets. The helmets are 15 percent lighter than other helmets and used in both combat and non-combat situations.

The company also has a contract with the U.S. Army research labs to develop new materials for armor to protect troops.

Engineers are essential in the success of such companies, but today's engineers must possess skill sets that extend beyond the theoretical. "The story about engineers is you need to be highly flexible, especially in a growth environment," says Bob Miller, general manager of Ceradyne-Diaphorm. Ceradyne Inc. acquired Diaphorm Technologies for $9.5 million in June. "You can't just be behind the computer or in the shop."

Savvy engineering firms are helping clients find ways to save money as well as find funding to move projects forward. Wright-Pierce in Portsmouth, which focuses on water and wastewater technologies mostly for municipalities, employs in-house experts to help clients land funding for projects, many of which cost tens of millions of dollars, says President William E. Brown.

A few years ago, Wright-Pierce worked with the town of Jaffrey to secure state and federal funding worth $11.7 million, or 65 percent of the cost of the town's upgraded wastewater treatment plant, which is now completed. The company has spent much of this year working with companies to apply for stimulus funds to support their current infrastructure needs. "Our niche is coming up with cost-effective ways to upgrade [municipal infrastructure]," says Brown, whose company also works on other municipal infrastructure. That means not only keeping project costs down, but incorporating energy efficiency into projects to generate cost savings long term. A recent wastewater treatment facility the company designed for Falmouth, Maine, reduced the town's power costs by 40 percent.

And that's just one location. Brown notes that water and wastewater facilities consume 3 percent of this country's power. Reducing that power usage helps the bottom line and the environment.

The company recently won an award for a Hanover water treatment upgrade that uses membrane treatment technology to recycle 98 percent of backwash water and treat the water without a chemical or biological process. "If you're trying to attract businesses, they not only want quality infrastructure service at an affordable cost, they also want a nice environment, and a lot of our projects enhance the environment," Brown says.

Engineering firms are also helping clients take advantage of the stimulus bill. The Louis Berger Group Inc. in Manchester recently expedited the design of a bridge for the town of Salem so that plans were deemed "shovel ready" and eligible for some of the $13 million made available through the stimulus program's transit funds for NH.

Honoring Success
State officials are well aware of the importance innovation plays in the NH economy and are promoting innovative Granite State companies. "Innovation Rocks!" is a monthly award that honors companies that have designed and developed technologies with a significant impact on the state. The project is a joint venture of the NH Business Resource Center and Rock 101 WGIR FM, and winners receive on-air recognition and a commendation from the governor, among other things.

"Anything that is made today in the U.S. is going to be mass produced overseas tomorrow," Roy Duddy, interim director of the Division of Economic Development, says of many technologies. "Companies need to be unique, ingenious and provide cutting-edge technology."

One of the 33 honorees recognized since June is Ektron, the Nashua developer of social media networking software technology for such disparate sectors as education, health care and golf. The company now has more than 200 employees and continues to hire more engineers. Its software is used by 7,500 customers worldwide, 60 percent of those for public sites and 40 percent for Intranet sites.

"Web sites are becoming much more dynamic and we're trying to build the technology to make it transparent so non-technical people can do it," says Bill Rogers, CEO and founder of the company. "Marketing budgets are smaller, but they are focusing on the digital marketing strategy and their Web sites are part of that."

That means creating sites that give users the versatility to interact easily through many media, including the ability to create interactive forms or surveys in seconds, or partnering with others to offer "widgets" or mini-applications that users can download and install on their sites to add new functionality.

That innovation has spurred the company's success despite the recession. "We're not seeing any toughness in the economy," Rogers says, adding the company continues to hire employees.

It's that type of thinking that has companies shouting, "Viva La Revolucion!" Now, unleash the geeks! n

Editor Matt Mowry contributed to this story.

 


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