Nonprofit garners new $750K grant from Golden Leaf Foundation.
By David Leone
WAKE FOREST — The locomotive that is the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina (WRCNC) is picking up steam.
The Wake Forest-based nonprofit has announced a new partnership with East Carolina University to further the school’s work on wireless medical advances.
And the Golden LEAF Foundation has proffered WRC another grant, this time for $750,000. The grant will be used in conjunction with ECU to get residents in rural areas better access to medical care.
“ECU is emerging into the engineering and wireless medical (sector),” said Gerry Hayes, WRCNC president and CEO.
ECU, which pioneered telemedicine — having doctors assist people remotely through a televised link — hopes to expand its video conferencing through the use of wireless devices.
Hayes foresees a future in which a nurse or similar home healthcare provider will be able to go into a residence in the most remote areas of the state and perform tests, such as for pregnancies, or certain screenings, using equipment with a high-bandwidth stream of data that can be read and evaluated by a doctor in an office elsewhere in the state.
The doctor and patient could also be in contact via Skype on a personal computer or other device, Hayes added.
The applications for expanding medical technologies to rural areas is what interested the board of directors governing the Golden LEAF Foundation. In a press release, Golden LEAF announced the funding would specifically be used to “establish a Portable Wireless Network Test Capability consisting of three portable towers and radio equipment that can be deployed to most geographic regions of the state.”
Additionally, the network would benefit development of the unmanned aerial system (commonly known as drones) by N.C. State University, assist current work in the state to create rural smart-grid systems and aid in the evaluation and deployment of emergency communications networks for use in natural disasters when wired communication systems are inoperable, the release states.
“It’s something we said we would do from the beginning — help address the rural broadband (issue),” Hayes added. “The state department of commerce has an N.C. broadband group. We’re right in the middle of really helping to find solutions for that.”
“The fact that Golden LEAF recognizes the center being able to support that is a nice pat on our back. It says a lot for us and our town,” Hayes said.
The WRCNC was created to support research, product development, testing and regulatory assistance for current and next generation wireless systems and technologies.
The Wake Forest-based engineering and research lab provides access to antenna, radio frequency engineering and regulatory consulting services to assist organizations and entrepreneurs who don’t have a wireless device testing facility.
For ECU, having access to the testing facility for its technology is a major benefit.
For the Wake Forest and Triangle area businesses that have been using the testing facility, having access to university staff who can help with problems without requiring sharing of intellectual property rights for the devices being tested is also key.
ECU’s Office of Technology Transfer will pay to use the lab as needed. In return, the businesses that use the WRCNC on a regular basis will have access to ECU’s technology transfer staff, and vice-versa, so a sharing of ideas and solutions can be facilitated.
“This collaboration will heighten the quality of technologies emerging from our university, improving the opportunity for products in the computing, medical, defense, materials or energy fields to reach the market,” Mark Foley, interim director of ECU’s Office of Technology Transfer, said in a release.
Two ECU projects are receiving immediate benefit from the partnership. One incorporates wireless communication into a system designed to perform remote hearing tests. The second project uses wireless technology in the collection of biofeedback related to stress, resiliency and the rehabilitation of veterans returning from combat.
The more partnerships the WRCNC makes, and the more it gets its name out there, the greater the opportunity for startups to want to use the Wake Forest facility, versus facilities in other areas.
One small startup, engineering services firm RF2Antenna, is located within the WRCNC building itself, off Rogers Road.
“We’ve got several [startups] in the area we like to connect with. They’re always coming to our facility,” said Hayes. “We get companies with problem with their device, not working the way they anticipated. We can connect them with the right resource to help them solve it.”
“Between what we do in house and our extended network, we’ve found answers for every problem we've identified (where a solution was possible),” he added.
Both Golden LEAF and the town of Wake Forest have previously endowed the WRC with financial support, both in the form of grants and loans to be repaid. Golden LEAF previously gave a $962,000 grant and the town, $1.25 million, much in the form of loans.
WRCNC recently began paying back interest on its loans.
The nonprofit has eight full-time employees and one unfilled part-time position and has been renting out its large testing chamber about 50 percent of the time.
“Our cash flow is positive,” said Hayes, meaning they’re now taking in more than they’re spending and have no further need for grants to pay for operating costs.
“We’re still on track for paying back the line of credit (by the end of 2014),” he said.