Biometrics Capital Of The World? Plan to regionalize state's economy puts North Central W.Va. in the high-tech corridor

Clarksburg Exponent Telegram

by Nora Edinger, Regional Editor

CLARKSBURG (Sunday, December 9, 2001)

They're after the entrepreneur in California or Washington, D.C. -- the guy who thinks up a business involving fingerprints or facial recognition or something else no one has considered yet.

They want him to automatically plan on West Virginia's Interstate 79 corridor the way another kind of techie might daydream about California's Silicon Valley.

They -- certain congressmen, state leaders, educators and business interests -- say the North Central region is well on its way there. And, they're preparing to give it the shove it needs to become America's human-identification technology, or biometrics, capital.

A regional economy

"If it stayed in the ground, coal wouldn't have had a value. We need to mine this opportunity in human identification," said David Satterfield, newly appointed executive director of the state Development Office.

He is in favor of a plan to regionalize the state's economy that's being developed by a joint legislative committee. Designating the North Central region as a biometrics corridor is in the plan.

"We're trying to break up the state in a way that materially works now," Del. Sam Cann said of 35 markets the committee is studying.

Cann, D-Harrison, is House chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development.

While the committee has not completed a market list, Satterfield said some areas are obvious. In addition to North Central biometrics, the Kanawha Valley has chemical and manufacturing strengths, for example.

He believes regional development will create what he calls economic synergy. 

"We look more and more attractive to like industries. If people see a key sector in the valley here, they see it as a key place to expand," he said, referring to the Charleston area.

While the plan may lead to legislative activity by 2002, Satterfield said the Development Office is already on board. Specifically, he will soon locate business recruiters in certain regions.

High hopes

Michael Yura, director of West Virginia University's Forensics Identification Program, is encouraged by state interest in a biometrics corridor.

He sees it as a natural follow up to work Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Alan Mollohan, all D-W.Va., have already done in siting government biometric interests locally.

"You have three really powerful people all (committed to) biometrics," Yura said. "You have academics, you have business and industry and you have government agencies, and we all talk to each other."

He's not sure how quickly development could happen, but said Sept. 11 terrorism has generally spurred interest in human identification.

Roger Duckworth said the Fairmont-based West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation is already poised to grow. He is vice president for technology management there. 

Of the foundation's 227 member businesses, several dozen have direct or indirect involvement in biometrics.

Vick French believes such depth and diversity of development shows West Virginia is already a major national biometrics player.

Managing director of the International Biometrics Industry Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., French directly compared the I-79 corridor to Silicon Valley. He sees WVU as key and recently established a joint agreement with the school.

"Silicon Valley in California was built on the core research and capabilities of Stanford University. That's exactly the right model for West Virginia University to look to in building its biometric capabilities," French said.

Hurdles on the horizon

Even the most ardent supporters of a biometric corridor admit there are number of challenges.

One is privacy.

"There are always issues when you're dealing with this kind of technology ... social and legal issues," Yura said.

He said if the industry is not careful to address them as it progresses, it could run into resistance similar to what researchers dealing with human cloning have seen.

He would like to see WVU become a national repository for research on such concerns.

Several of the sources for this article also said getting the right workers to locate in West Virginia is a hurdle.

Yura said there are only about 100 biometric specialists in the United States today. Companies regularly steal workers from each other.

Right now, WVU needs to find high school students who are well trained in math and science and are willing to tackle a difficult major. The first biometrics graduate will finish this month. In the meantime, he said the region will have to enter the national fray.

"We're going to face a lot competition," Duckworth agreed. "You have to create a habitat that the knowledge economy needs to grow -- nice places to live and work, good schools, fresh air, clean water."

Another difficulty is more mundane, but has high rascal potential.

"Regionalism is not popular in West Virginia," said Sen. Mike Ross, D-Randolph. "It almost falls in the category of guns, dogs, school consolidation and county zoning."

A seasoned politician and energy-industry entrepreneur, Ross said a quieter approach may be more realistic given the state's culture.

What's happening?

Some leaders from government, industry and education want to develop the North Central region as a national biometrics corridor.

Biometrics usesbodily characteristics such as fingerprints, palm prints, facial bone structure or iris patterns for identification and security.

The leaders say area residents will see:
• discussion of regional development strategies during the 2002 legislative session, which begins Jan. 9
• eventual announcement of biometric-related business sitings.
• new worker-training programs.