Monday, January 31, 2011

One question with Joe Meredith, president of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center

Do you have to be a rocket scientist to run the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center?

Considering his educational background, you'd expect Joe Meredith would spend his days designing high-tech weapons systems, space shuttles and manned missions to Mars.

A bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech. A master's degree in aeronautics, astronautics and engineering science from Purdue University. A doctorate in industrial and systems engineering from Virginia Tech.

But for the past 18 years, Meredith's design work has dealt mostly with business plans and lease contracts as president of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

During his tenure, the center has grown to include 27 buildings with about 1 million square feet of space on a 120-acre campus. It is home to 140 private companies that employ more than 2,200 people. VT Knowledge Works, an incubator program at the center, is working with more than 50 startup companies. In September, the center was named the 2010 Outstanding Research/Science Park by the Association of University Research Parks.

So do you have to be a rocket scientist to run the Corporate Research Center?

"Gosh, I hope not, or I'll never be able to retire. I don't know that the aeronautics has had any benefit. I do think having a technical education has allowed me to develop stronger relationships in the park with companies that have managers who are technologists. It's easier to develop rapport if you think you have the same technical background.

"One of my educational experiences was at Defense Systems Management College [a U.S. government school for Department of Defense weapons systems program managers]. So I did have a number of business-related courses. Even though I don't hold a business degree, I got a little more business education than other engineering students.

"The CRC promotes two strategies: starting up and recruiting early stage companies as well as attracting large companies. At Newport News Shipbuilding [his previous employer; now Northrop Grumman], I was what is known as an 'intrapreneur' ... an entrepreneur working within a large company. When they had either new products or new divisions that they were interested in setting up, I had the opportunity to develop business plans and try to develop consensus to launch that initiative and raise money within the company to do that.

"Even as an intrapreneur I had to raise money within the company to launch a venture I was trying to launch. That gave me an appreciation of the challenges that an entrepreneur faces, and gave me insight into how large companies think. It gave me the experience to both encourage startups and attract major companies to the CRC.

"By having an engineering degree, you signal to the world that you're pretty much an analytical, logical thinker. As a result, people perceive me as predictable.

"Risk and your approach to risk are two different things. Engineers approach risk for risk minimization and predictable outcomes. I'm not going to do anything wild and crazy and out of the box. As an engineer, I hope people find me to be more approachable and more dependable."

By Michael Hemphill, special to The Roanoke Times

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