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Special Report
University Entrepreneurship

 March 2000



Virtual Corporation Paving Way to MagLev Venture

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A three-year-old student education venture has developed a novel transportation technology for which Virginia Tech may start a spin-off company. Tech officials believe that the technology can solve some nationwide transit problems in an economically and environmentally sound manner.

The technology was developed by Tech's Virtual Corporation program, which was established in 1997 by department Head Leonard Ferrari, provides students with a new paradigm for learning through interdisciplinary projects on issues of national or state concern. Virtual Corporation students work within the structure of a commercial engineering firm, and design real products, systems, and technology, based on actual market conditions.

The DISC Virtual Corporation team has been working on medical imaging for remote diagnostics and monitoring, while the PERTS team has tackled transit technologies.

Ferrari asked the PERTS team to design and develop a dual-mode personal rapid transit system to relieve traffic congestion around the nation. The team was given freedom to explore any solutions. In just two years, the PERTS team has developed a working prototype of a unique switched-reluctance propulsion system that will be the basis for a cost-effective, dual-mode, personal rapid transit system. The system would involve personal autos that can be driven on local roads - and driven onto palettes that provide long-distance, MagLev transport.

The most recent PERTS data suggest that a single-track system would be able to carry as much traffic as three to four conventional highway lanes at one-tenth the cost. "One PERTS lane is estimated to cost $6 million per mile, versus $46 million per mile of a single highway lane," said Krishnan Ramu, who has served as the Virtual Corporation program director since inception of the program.

"This technology has immense potential to solve not only the gridlock problems of our cities, but also help change the face of our highways," he said. "It would help people commute faster, reduce emissions, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and get people off the road in an environmentally friendly and safe manner. It could help the commuters in Northern Virginia or Los Angeles who lose two weeks of their time each year stopped on the road system. That's a big national waste," he added.

PERTS has developed two small-scale prototypes with the new technology. "We would like to build a 1/10th scale model in 12 to 18 months, and 24 months later, a regular, full-scale, two-mile-long demonstration unit. Ideally, in four years, the technology would be ready for a system to be installed.

"For the full-scale demonstration unit, we are hoping that the project will be off campus," Ramu said. "It would entail such a large magnitude of engineering design, analysis, and testing, that it would not be feasible with student resources." He said the university is interested in forming a public/private partnership to manage and commercialize the technology. "We've had exciting interest from a venture capital firm, along with one of the largest venture capital banks in the country."

Ramu said that the spin-off effort was not planned. "I knew we were heading to something significant, but I didn't realize just how strong the potential is. However, there has been some awakening here on the team and within the university leadership. We believe the potential impact on the country's transportation system to be tremendous. We also realize that there may be constituencies that may not favor the introduction of the technology."

Tech, through its Foundation, could own equity in the spin-off, and if the venture is successful, the university's endowment could double, triple, or quadruple in just a few years, Ramu said. "I hope that significant funds will come back to the Virtual Corporation to further our program of educating students in a nontraditional environment, which requires enormous faculty and graduate student resources in order to work."

However, if the venture is successful, the benefits to Tech are much greater than financial gain, he said. "An effort like this can have an impact on the national economy. If students know that past Virtual Corporation efforts had been useful, we would see a great influx of interested students."

A successful spin-off would be a big boost to Tech's national reputation. "Tech would gain national visibility in policy issues that are impacted by our technology, and could assume the role of a major university," Ramu said. "This would attract the best students and faculty from across the nation."

He would like greater numbers of faculty and students involved in the Virtual Corporation. "We have developed a foundation for enabling technology," he said. "Once we spin off this project, VC PERTS could work on many other applications of the technology. One application is high-speed MagLev trains without wheels. Another possibility is high-speed cargo movement systems. Can you imagine how we can change our highways if the truck traffic were reduced? All these ideas are feasible, given enough time by faculty and students."

Ramu believes that such projects could possibly enhance the university's reputation more than greater and improved research efforts by Tech faculty. At present, the university has a number of research groups and centers that are the top in their fields. However, although these centers are well known in their industries, they are not well known to the general public, he said. "If we continue to develop system solutions that address the major issues of society, such as transportation and health care, our reputation would be enhanced in every sector," he said.


The Bradley Department

of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Virginia Tech

Last Updated, March 30, 2000
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