September 25, 2008

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High-tech NH
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be English majors
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Tourism is a big part of the New Hampshire economy, but it’s not the only one. And while there might be hundreds of artisans in the state, crafts aren’t the only thing made here. The high-tech sector is one that provides much better jobs than, say, retail. It also can create significant revenue for the state. New Hampshire is working to keep it that way.

Fred Kocher is one of the most well-known voices when it comes to the state’s high-tech sector. He is the president of the New Hampshire High Technology Council and a trustee of Daniel Webster College.

In an NHHTC 2007 November/December newsletter, Kocher reported that 7 percent of jobs in New Hampshire are in high tech, while those companies produce a third of the state’s gross. He also wrote that the average 60- year-old has more education than the average 30-year-old here.

Kocher calls the situation the “Big Squeeze.” Baby Boomer scientists and technicians are retiring in great numbers without enough young people to take the positions over. Tech companies can’t find enough visas for qualified foreign workers. Now those companies are trying to convince Baby Boomers to stay on.

Have things changed since 2007? In the midst of a wild week on Wall Street, Kocher said the high-tech industry “tracks with the economy ... and the economy is having some problems, so everybody is feeling the pinch.”

As a general rule, companies in high tech are doing more business overseas than they are at home now, exporting more because markets overseas might not be seeing what’s going on in the U.S. Plus there’s the currency value issue.

Kocher also said “certain niche” markets are hot despite the downturn, including renewable energy, nanotechnology, biotechnology, some areas of software development, and instrumentation for medical and aeronautical needs. “Those areas are chugging right along,” and New Hampshire does have businesses in those niches, he said.

As for the future, young engineers and scientists are key to keeping or growing high tech in New Hampshire, Kocher said. He thinks business and academic communities and government realize there’s a shortage of engineers, particularly electrical engineers — and students looking to science and technology careers. “There are a lot of efforts under way to turn that around,” Kocher said.

Molding young minds
Mihaela Sabin, a program coordinator and assistant professor of Computer Information Systems at University of New Hampshire, Manchester, has a serious stake in the high-tech field.

At American secondary schools overall, IT program enrollment declined over the past six or seven years. Sabin witnessed that trend as a professor at Rivier College for seven years and during her PhD work at UNH in Durham. The Association of Computing Machinery reported enrollment trends going up just this year, Sabin said.

Sabin noted three issues that contributed to the decline. One was the burst of the tech bubble. That was “compounded by Sept. 11,” she said, which made it much harder for people to obtain visas to come to the U.S. Particularly at the graduate levels, a good portion of computer science students are international, she said.

A third problem was outsourcing and off-shoring. “But what has happened, and everybody acknowledges this ... the educational pipeline is shrinking while demand is growing,” Sabin said. Now there is a false image that IT jobs are no longer out there. “We are all trying very hard in higher education to change that image,” Sabin said.

Dr. Robert E. (Skip) Myers, president of Daniel Webster College, said he’s seen a “pretty dramatic” increase “in terms of student interest [in science and tech] in what we call voting with their feet.”

Gaming simulation and robotics, an offshoot of computer science, is Daniel Webster College’s fastest-growing program, followed by aeronautical engineering and mechanical engineering. They are relatively new programs at the college. 

Through enrollment numbers, DWC students are showing more interest in engineering. Myers said the small college has “mastered the blending of classroom and practical applications.” Engineering firms bring projects for DWC students to work on, which is not typical for undergraduate programs.

The gaming simulation and robotics program is “incredibly unique,” he said. It’s one of a handful of programs of its type across the U.S., he said. It’s not just about making video games. It’s about game theory, and many companies are using gaming scenarios and simulations for development, he said.

UNH-Manchester has included expansion of science and technology programs in its goals. “The reason we’re expanding in these areas is that the state needs an education pipeline to provide high-quality employees in the science/technology workforce. The jobs are there, but too often there aren’t enough educated people to fill them,” Kristin Woolever, dean of UNH-Manchester, commented by e-mail.

“Graduates who are educated in the newest theories and applications keep New Hampshire’s businesses on the cutting edge. Older workers, too, need to constantly keep up with new knowledge and skills as technology changes at lightning speed. When I talk to CEOs and hiring managers in the Merrimack Valley, the need for graduates in these fields tops their list,” Woolever wrote.

In academia, the “STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines are getting much more attention these days than in previous decades. Grant funding sources are privileging these disciplines from primary schools all the way to graduate education,” Woolever said.
Enrollment reflects a growing interest in STEM fields at UNH-Manchester, Woolever said. The school’s new B.A. in Biology program and B.S. in Computer Information Systems “are growing rapidly.” The B.S. degrees in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Technology programs “are doing well.” “To meet demand, we’re also in the process of developing a master’s degree in Information Technology, which we hope to have ready by next academic year. Local industry has been very cooperative in working with us to design programs that meet the needs of the New Hampshire workforce,” Woolever wrote.

UNH-Manchester’s undergraduate CIS program is only four years old and has grown to 50 declared majors this year, Sabin said. She can’t estimate what percentage are “international” students. That’s because high-tech companies often employ workers with H-1B visas, or green card holders. Rather than arriving on student visas, foreign-born students might be spouses or dependents of foreign workers or green-card holders, she pointed out.

What about the girls?
Recruiting women into the STEM fields is “an ever-present challenge,” Myers said. DWC saw an increase in women applying for engineering programs, particularly aeronautical, he said. However, the “really tough one is anything having to do with computer science,” he said, which Sabin confirms.

Sabin is a member of two ACM special interest groups in “Computer Science Education” and “Information Technology Education.” They’ve been working to find ways to attract women to the field. It seems that girls associate computers with playing games, and they are “not so much interested in that,” Sabin said.

Academics have also learned that they need to recruit girls in middle school, not high school, and have girls participate in themed camps.

They found that girls want to solve problems of some social interest, Sabin said. “They really want to see the benefit of computing to human beings,” Sabin said.

Sabin’s classes use projects based in the real world, she said. For example, her students work on projects for local nonprofits. Students can see the need, and there’s a different motivation than just finishing the textbook chapter, she said.

UNH-Manchester’s outreach scholarship program connects teaching research and service, and the college wants students to be a part of it, Sabin said. She and her students have worked with the Salvation Army in Manchester, New Hampshire Catholic Charities and Massabesic Audubon Society. The activities show that “the computer is not the end in itself,” but a vehicle, Sabin said. Sabin will present a talk about the effort, open to the public, called “Pro Bono Computing,” Wednesday, Oct. 29, at noon, at UNH-Manchester.

Myers said what DWC has learned from other colleges and studies is that women perceive computer science work as writing software code in seclusion. One way to overcome that is to show careers that involve more social team-based project work and opportunities for project management, he said.

Before college
The state’s Department of Education released scores for standardized science tests Sept. 18. The results showed 51 percent of fourth-graders to be proficient on the New England Common Assessment Program exam, but only 26 percent of eighth-graders and 22 percent of 11th-graders. The No Child Left Behind Act required statewide science testing starting in 2008.

“I could probably go on for hours talking about trends in science and math proficiency scores,” Myers said. He thinks, and tends to hear from others, that the loss of proficiency in science and math is “inevitably going to lead to a national security issue for this county ... it sounds a little far-fetched but when you think of it ... this country has historically been a haven for knowledge creation,” Myers said. The brightest minds emigrated here, bringing math and science skills with them, and others were born here. As that situation declines, and other countries get more serious, there will be winners in terms of economic development. When economies falter, security is put at risk, Myers said.

The new charter school in Merrimack, Academy for Science and Design, about doubled its enrollment for its second year open at 316 DW Highway, from 32 last year, to 62 now. The students are in grades seven through 11 (most are in grades seven through nine).

Director Chris Franklin confirmed that part of the mission is to get more students prepared for jobs in science and technology, but the “biggest part is also to have an internationally competitive school.” For example, seventh-graders start taking algebra I, chemistry, physics and biology — which is about the speed that schools abroad teach at.

ASD seeks to introduce students to seven focus areas earlier than they might face them at other schools: Architecture and Engineering; Chemistry and Bio-medicine; Space, Astronomy and Astronautics; Computer Science, System Design and Simulation; Environment and Global Sustainability; Mathematics and Physics and Aeronautics and Aviation (www.asdnh.org).

The language taught is Mandarin Chinese. “Anyone who understands the world economy and where it’s going realizes the main competition, and probably collaborator, will be China,” Kocher said.

“I think more and more people are starting to notice us as being alternative to public or private,” Franklin said. They haven’t started their outreach campaign for the year yet, but Franklin said it can be tough to get people to understand there is no tuition. Charters are state-funded and report to the Department of Education.

New Hampshire is one of about seven or eight states that don’t have a science magnet school, Franklin said.

Asked if American students should be exposed to STEM topics at an earlier age, Sabin said the Computer Science Teaching Association has become active in trying to reconfigure the high school computer science curriculum. They want to introduce it as a broader science, rather than introduce a programming language, which students might not find interesting.

“I think Dean Kamen hit the nail on the head,” Kocher said. “I think the FIRST Robotics Competition is exactly the kind of competition that excites students,” Kocher said. FIRST allows students to become totally immersed and do things with robotics they probably never thought about, Kocher said. There are spinoff benefits, like learning teamwork and the challenge of keeping a machine working. It’s voluntary, but “if you challenge students to do something, many of them will do it,” Kocher said.

New Hampshire High Technology Council last fall made “a conscious decision to make education a number-one priority for the foreseeable future,” Kocher said.

State support
There were news reports that iRobot was looking at Jaffrey as a potential site in 2007, to move from their Burlington, Mass., home. However, Bedford, Mass., was selected after a local tax increment financing benefit package was put together. 

New Hampshire can be a great state for entrepreneurial start-ups in technology and engineering, Myers said. “But once those start-ups get to a certain size and density and number of employees, they tend to move somewhere else,” Myers said.

The “tech belt” around Boston is traditionally seen as a go-to place for high tech. Not everyone still sees it that way.

“Increasingly, technology companies are looking to southeastern New Hampshire because of the lower cost to locate outside of the Routes 128/495 belt while still remaining an hour from Boston. Young families find New Hampshire attractive (with its seacoast, mountains, lakes, and more affordable housing). Still, many young people — recent college graduates — want to leave the state for city lifestyle before they settle down to raise families,” Woolever wrote.

Dave Crocker, vice president and general manager of XMA in Manchester, is a fan of New Hampshire. “I think it’s a good environment for several reasons,” Crocker said. New Hampshire really is just emerging as a high-tech area for investment. Because of that, there’s more interest on the part of cities and towns to work with businesses to attract people or companies to employee residents, he said. XMA employees seem to enjoy the lower overall cost compared to Massachusetts, he said.

“The state [Massachusetts] certainly does incentivize certain companies to locate in Massachusetts,” Crocker said. Particularly if those companies bring a lot of jobs or services. But the tech belt is getting more crowded, and the state is having a harder time convincing businesses that Massachusetts is attractive. On the other hand, the Massachusetts education system is a draw, because the colleges there “produce a lot of good talent” that feeds the industry, Crocker said.

Crocker lives in Westford, Mass., commutes with a hybrid car and recently started carpooling. He and his wife stay put to be close to their grandchildren, he said.

“I think there’s an ethos we wanted to build around Nemo,” Brensinger said. He and his colleagues wanted their high-tech tents to be seen as a uniquely New England product. Many outdoor companies are based in the Pacific Northwest. None of Nemo’s staff are the “laid-back surfer type,” Brensinger said. Nemo is a mix of New England’s “passion about the outdoors” and “geekiness.” Nemo sets itself apart by being “hardcore” about pushing technology in the outdoor industry. Nashua is their location since it’s between the White Mountains and resources at MIT and Rhode Island School of Design.

“I think that there are certainly some issues in the state of New Hampshire that need to be addressed,” Myers said. There are some concerns about the level of support in the state for education in and of itself. The state is “down near the bottom” in terms of public support for education among the 50 states. It’s at the bottom in terms of scholarships to residents to attend college in New Hampshire. However, Myers said, those are understood and recognized as issues that need to be dealt with in the state.

The lack of housing in the price range of people just starting a career is one problem. “I think the state is starting to come to grips with that,” Myers said.

Governor Lynch asked Kocher to work with Michael Vlacich, director of the Division of Economic Development Team, at DRED to come up with a branding plan for tech in New Hampshire. The goal is to retain and attract tech companies and encourage start-ups.

One part of the project has been interviewing companies to find out what is attractive about the state. Answers included low taxes, quality of life and accessibility to the Boston market, Kocher said.

They also heard that it is a “business-friendly state.” For example, the small business development program offers all kinds of support in terms of business advice and counseling.

It’s not that there aren’t programs to support new business and innovation. It’s that companies ask for more, Steve Boucher said. New Hampshire doesn’t offer a lot of subsidies. There’s “no free lunch,” but the value is in “what it doesn’t cost to do business here,” Boucher said. The resources the state does have are used wisely, he said. It’s a challenge to get companies to understand that there is one of the lowest tax burden’s in the country, and that there are other benefits, like being one of the safest and healthiest states.

A research and development tax credit for businesses was passed in 2007 in New Hampshire. There’s a Coos County job creation tax credit, a low-interest loan program through Citizens Bank for new job creation, Revitalization Zone Tax Credits, access to federal Community Development Block Grants, energy efficiency loans from Ocean Bank and job training funds (nheconomy.com).

Each month, the state celebrates a company doing something new or using an innovative process that saves time or money or both in “Innovation Rocks.” The chosen company receives a commendation from the governor, spots on Rock 101, and a gift certificate to the Hilton Garden Inn in Manchester.

Tech smarts
But companies also need to step up when it comes to education, apparently.

“I think the key really is more interaction between companies and students,” Kocher said. Schools call his client, GT Solar, asking about internships, field trips and guest speakers.

“New Hampshire can be a ‘technology state,’ as Governor Lynch has urged. More partnerships between industry and universities can create a much needed synergy to reach that goal. Certainly internships is one way to partner, but there are many others as well: moving industry expertise into the classroom in the form of industry-sponsored professorships, adding academic laboratory space for technology incubators, and many other collaborative initiatives would have a substantial impact on the future of this state,” Woolever wrote.

There have been strides in education. Kocher can point to a few so far. The New Hampshire Colleges Council in Concord has a program called State Scholars in 11 high schools. It seeks to encourage those students who are in the middle — not on a pre-college track or at risk of dropping out — to get on a college track. The program “creates an atmosphere” that is “a little more rigorous” and “more relevant to real life.” It involves business community members to serve as mentors and encourage the students to go to college.

UNH just rebuilt its engineering school, and it’s now a world-class school of engineering and physical sciences. That will attract students, he said. 

There’s more STEM-related news at UNH. UNH in Durham announced Sept. 10 that the school “entered into a licensing agreement with Itaconix LLC to commercialize green chemistry developed by the university’s Nanostructured Polymers Research Center.” Senior physics major Austin Purves was one of 7,000 scientists who worked on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva which was set to start Sept. 10. UNH has begun a dual major EcoGastronomy program “that takes students to the field, the kitchen, the lab and Italy to study the complexities of sustainable food systems.” UNH hosted 27 middle and high school students at their “Tech Camp” this summer. UNH-Manchester launched a new bachelor of arts degree in Biological Science this year.

Defense
Anyone who grew up near BAE/Lockheed/Sanders knows that defense contracts can be a big deal. Even Jetboil and Nemo have products that are used by soldiers. Kollsman in Merrimack creates aviation systems for aircraft, including military. They received a contract for up to $97 million from the Navy in June. Insight Tech-Gear in Londonderry makes weapon-mounted lighting. DTC in Nashua makes surveillance technology, also useful for police and fire departments. Conway’s Animetrics develops face recognition technology, some of which is used by the military. The list goes on.

When asked how much the state’s technology industry depends on sales to the military, Kocher said that depends on the company and product. But “collectively,” government contracts are “very important to the economy of state,” he said.

It can be a challenge for smaller companies to find out how to become subs to prime contractors. DRED helps with that. Small businesses can also call congressional offices for help doing business with the federal government. The International Trade Resource Center at Pease helps businesses learn how to export and sell to other governments.

Also, the defense department tries to use new technologies, and many times the innovations are not in the big companies. It’s a challenge for the military to find those smaller ones, which is why better match-making is needed, he said.

“Clearly, anytime there’s a build-up in the defense infrastructure for whatever reason,” Kocher said — whether it’s homeland security efforts or wars or conflicts — there’s more demand.