published Sunday, March 27th, 2011

SimCenter selling its potential

  • photo
    Tim Walsh, president of the SimCetner Enterprises Inc.
    Staff File Photo by Chattanooga Times Free Press

As a computer and Internet industry executive over most of the past four decades, Tim Walsh has had a front-row seat to the emergence of such technology centers as the Silicon Valley in California, Route 28 in Boston and the Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C.

At age 65, Walsh says he isn’t ready to retire and believes he’s found one of America’s next potential tech corridors spanning from Huntsville, Ala., to Oak Ridge in the Tennessee Valley. According to Walsh, the cutting-edge computational engineering work being done at UTC’s SimCenter is a key spoke in that emerging tech hub.

“This is right down the street from where I live in Knoxville, but I was just amazed that all of this was here at the SimCenter,” said Walsh, who was recruited last year to head a nonprofit group seeking to promote the computational engineering research facility. “The work at the SimCenter and other new ventures in Chattanooga really takes me back to my early days in Silicon Valley, and I know this is the beginning of something very significant for this part of the country.”

The computational engineering program was lured to UTC from Mississippi State University in 2002, and the facility took on the distinction of becoming the first National Center for Computational Engineering in 2007.

In addition to educating several dozen doctoral candidates in computer engineering, the SimCenter is trying to do more to commercialize its research by using its high-speed computer simulations for clients ranging from the U.S. Navy to U.S. Xpress Enterprises.

Tim Walsh at a glance

Job: President of SimCenter Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit agency designed to commercialize SimCenter research and to support the center

Age: 65

Education: An engineering and business graduate from Boston University and the University of Virginia, he served eight years in the U.S. Navy where he was responsible for Naval Tactical Data Systems

Career: From 1974 to 1995, he served in several key management jobs at Digital Equipment Corp.; he was a vice president for PictureTel Corp. from 1995 to 1999; he then co-founded SignCast Inc., an Internet-based media company; in 2002, he was hired as chief executive of epipeline and grew the business before selling it in 2007 to Mediagrif Interactive Technologies; In 2010 he was named president of TBI Labor Tech Inc., and he joined SimCenter Enterprises in January.

“What I hope and expect is that some of the software that the SimCenter has developed has much wider application in the corporate world,” UTC Chancellor Roger Brown said.

Such applications could generate needed revenue to sustain and grow the academic program at the SimCenter and potentially to serve as a catalyst for business startups or expansions in Chattanooga linked to the center or its graduates.

“Over time, these contracts could help make the SimCenter financially self-sustaining even as it continues to grow,” Brown said. “We know we’re likely to see even fewer state dollars next year, and I think the SimCenter probably has the best opportunity of the UTC units to generate revenue on its own and therefore be able to continue to develop its staff and programs.”

Dr. John Schaerer, a consultant to the UTC chancellor, was hired in May 2010 to serve as the inaugural president of SimCenter Enterprises to help the nonprofit group get organized and begin to explore the business potential of the SimCenter.

Schaerer said the modeling and simulation using high-performance computers like those at the SimCenter has quickly grown into a $63 billion-a-year industry and is growing at an annual pace of nearly 25 percent.

“This is at the core of manufacturing in the 21st century,” Schaerer said. “These commercial ventures also give students a way to balance theory and practice and to get a chance to get their feet wet in solving real life problems.”

Schaerer said the SimCenter and its faculty are experienced in simulations for aerodynamics, naval architecture, electromagnetics and vascular flow in the medical field.

Chattanooga’s biggest philanthropic foundations are looking to capitalize on the SimCenter even more by hiring Walsh to head SimCenter Enterprises — a 2-year-old collaborative designed to spur business research and startups in Chattanooga.

Local foundations and other donors have contributed $17 million of private funds to help fund SimCenter Enterprises and to look for ways to expand the SimCenter over time.

Walsh said he will use his high-tech background, connections and sales savvy to bring more commercial clients to the center.

Pete Cooper, executive director for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, said the Ph.D. graduates from the SimCenter offer a rich talent base for new and expanding computer firms and EPB’s gigabit Internet speed — the fastest of any city in America — offers needed high-speed connections for such ventures.

“I think in the long run the SimCenter could have more impact on Chattanooga than Volkswagen will here,” Cooper said. “I can see us starting to build small computer companies all up and down Main Street that not only provide employment but a new base of real wealth generation for our country.”

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