UT researcher pushing for more wireless businesses

By Kirk Ladendorf
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, September 14, 2003

While Austin's formal economic development effort has been sitting in limbo lately, some informal efforts have started sprouting up.

One of those groups is tied to Ted Rappaport, the prominent wireless technology researcher recruited last year to the University of Texas College of Engineering.

Rappaport, who moved to Austin from Virginia Tech, is spearheading a new wireless research program at UT and trying to drum up more interest in creating more wireless businesses in Austin.

Rappaport says he thinks that Austin can become a world-class wireless research and commercialization center. He's enlisted some high-profile business leaders to the cause, in the form of an ad hoc group that meets monthly at the University Club on Guadalupe Street across from campus to talk about wireless technology and economic development issues.

The group, which humorously calls itself the Blue Ribbon Vision Panel, includes former Dell Inc. President Mort Topfer and former CFO Tom Meredith; John Thornton, general partner of Austin Ventures; Fred Chang, president of technology strategy for SBC Communications Inc.; lawyer Pike Powers; College of Engineering Dean Ben Streetman; economic development consultant Angelos Angelou; Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce President Mike Rollins; and former Vignette executive Mike Vollman, who now runs a communications software startup.

The group got together early this year after Rappaport heard Angelou's report on the severity of Austin's high-tech economic slump and decided to bring together a group of business leaders.

"It's a way to get people together to talk about the future," Rappaport said. "Everyone at the table wants to help Austin and Texas."

Rappaport and other members are reluctant to say too much, but Angelou says it represents a grass-roots effort to discuss issues related to Austin's economic development. "The more people get involved in economic development, the better off everyone is," Angelou said.

Though the early purpose might be mostly talk, members such as Topfer, Meredith and Thornton have the stature and financial resources to play a direct role in bringing jobs to Austin.

For Rappaport, his work in the past year is all part of a plan to boost the stature of UT and Austin in the world of wireless research and business. Helping to build a broader and deeper base of wireless companies in the area also should help UT's program through donations, research collaborations and job opportunities for students.

Rappaport says his effort is not all that different from the effort that Streetman made to gain industry support for the semiconductor research program at UT in the 1980s.

"What Ted is doing is very significant for Austin," Angelou said. "Economic development works best when you leverage the significant assets that you have as a community." Rappaport, Angelou said, is such an asset.

The UT researcher, who combines an outgoing personality and a strong vision of the wireless future, is a natural to attract business community supporters. His arrival provides a new economic development path -- wireless -- that lies just outside Austin's traditional high-tech strengths in semiconductor design, computer hardware and software development. With much of the high-tech economy mired in a prolonged slump, wireless might become a new tech bandwagon for Austin.

Rappaport is doing more: He's bringing leading wireless industry executives to town next month for a research symposium at UT. The symposium, intended to link, researchers, industry executives and potential investors, will become an annual event.

Since Rappaport's arrival, UT has added several new faculty members specializing in wireless research as well as several dozen promising graduate students. His arrival also helped spur the creation of the Austin Wireless Alliance, a new group of several dozen companies tied to the Austin Technology Council.

The researcher also is giving informal advice to some startup companies and helping to introduce them to potential investors. One startup Rappaport has advised, Alereon Inc., relocated to Austin from Huntsville, Ala., this summer with the assistance of one of its investors, Austin Ventures.