Robert Caslen Bob and Weave cover image

Bob Caslen

COLUMBIA — As he lays out his ambitious vision for attracting $50 million more annually in federal research dollars, University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen describes a cyber corridor stretching from the Army’s cybersecurity headquarters near Augusta, Ga., to the USC campus in Columbia.

One stop along the way could include USC Aiken, 30 miles away from Fort Gordon, the Army base across the border where he says soldiers could obtain educational degrees and training.

It's also where South Carolina's adjutant general has requested state funding for a $30 million cyber command headquarters for the National Guard.

Another 50 miles east is USC's main campus, where Caslen says faculty would conduct cyber research for both the Guard and the Department of Defense. Also in the capital city, he sees a state cyber institute mirroring one built in Georgia that would develop security measures to protect the state's critical and vulnerable cyber infrastructure.

Caslen, a retired three-star Army general who ran U.S. Military Academy at West Point for five years, has made building ties with Fort Gordon one of his top priorities since taking office in August.

“I think all of that’s possible, and that’s something we at the university want to play a big part in,” he said. 

The Army is completing the move of its national Cyber Command to Fort Gordon from Fort Meade in Maryland. The Georgia base will be home to the military's technological security and its training grounds for the high-tech fighting force that defends attacks from hackers.

An expected 4,000 soldiers are to move to the fort, said Will Williams, president of the Economic Development Partnership, which serves the region that includes Aiken, Edgefield, McCormick and Saluda counties.

The amount of contracted research and development conducted in Columbia overall is low for a university town, said Doug Woodward, an economist with the University of South Carolina’s business school.

“We need to go where the growth is,” he said, and the money is in national defense spending. “We need to get some of that here in South Carolina,” he added. “Sometimes we don’t get the high end of the defense budget, but I think we can do better.”

USC's Office of Economic Engagement sees helping those contracts along as its role, said deputy director Chad Hardaway.

Caslen knows commanders at Fort Gordon from his 43 years in the military. Hardaway said he has noticed a difference in just the few months Caslen has been in office.

“I’ve had conversations with (Fort Gordon) leadership it would have taken me five years to even get to before,” he said.

Closer to the fort, local governments could reap the benefit of Caslen's military connections, Williams said.

That is particularly true of Aiken County, where officials hope by building out office space and having it readily available for potential tenants, it could draw in businesses moving to the area to serve Fort Gordon.

“When contractors are selected, they don’t have a year’s time to wait,” Williams said, and they need to be able to move in within six to eight months.

Tech firm code-named 'Gamechanger' comes to rural SC county

Most of those companies supporting Fort Gordon so far have located on the Georgia side of the Savannah River. A number of them have taken up residence in small retail spaces in downtown Augusta or at the Georgia Cyber Center, which the state opened in 2018 to build up its cybersecurity and information technology prowess.

Williams said Aiken and North Augusta have seen residential growth from the increased work at the fort, but local governments would like to get some cyber-related businesses to locate nearby as well.

Fort Gordon contractors looking for space often require a location within 10 to 15 minutes of the base. As only the western edges of Aiken County meets those requirements, it does make luring them more difficult, Williams said.

His organization has focused on space in North Augusta's mixed retail, office and residential Riverside Village development. It has also shown developers potential future sites along Interstate 20.

If any of these high-tech companies landed in Aiken County, it would be a new type of development for the region, Williams said. They would benefit Aiken with diversification of the employment base, which is heavily reliant on the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River National Laboratory and nuclear storage site.

Bridgestone and Kimberly Clark are the county's major manufacturing employers.

“I think in five years the landscape will look different,” Williams said as the cyber command's move is finalized

The arrival of more contractors and thousands of additional soldiers makes Aiken more attractive, Williams said.

Charleston, on the other hand, has long been a hotspot for defense contracting, with proximity to the Navy’s innovation hub, Naval Information Warfare Center known as NIWC, on the banks of the Cooper River.

Drew Varner, founder of Columbia IT startup NineFX, has done work for NIWC and could hone in on Fort Gordon next. 

“For us it’s a tremendous opportunity to have nearby,” Varner said. “We’re in that (cybersecurity) business now and we’re looking to get further in.”

Varner said the proximity of Fort Gordon makes it easier for his company to engage with decision makers. His firm is small but he envisions teaming up with larger companies to bring in larger contracts.

"If he had the right set of assets, he could take that $2 million contract turn it into $200 million," said Hardaway, whose office runs the incubator that NineFX operates from.

Varner said he is watching USC's moves, and he thinks the school is well positioned to take advantage of a Fort Gordon relationship. He said the school has a strong computer science program. Half of his own full-time employees are USC alumni. Nearly all of his interns come from South Carolina's largest school.

Success will depend on whether the contracts out of Fort Gordon can be matched up with researchers' interests at USC, Varner said.

“The skill set is definitely there,” he said.

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Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.