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2020 Annual Report Executive Summary

CCI Fiscal Year 2020 Annual Report

Executive Summary

Luiz DaSilva, Executive Director

The Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) was established under the enabling authority of the Appropriation Act - Item 252.B7, Special Session I, 2018. Its objective is “to serve as an engine for research, innovation, and commercialization of cybersecurity technologies, and address the Commonwealth’s need for growth of advanced and professional degrees within the cyber workforce” (Virginia State Budget, 2018).

CCI has a Hub and Nodes structure, with the Hub having a coordination role for the entire network, and each of the Nodes playing a more regional role. This structure allows us to establish a cohesive overall strategy for the Commonwealth while also having more targeted initiatives that are tailored to the needs and resources in Northern Virginia, Central Virginia, Coastal Virginia, and Southwest Virginia. The CCI Hub is anchored by Virginia Tech (VT) in Arlington, and the four regional Nodes are anchored by George Mason University (GMU), Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Old Dominion University (ODU), and VT in Blacksburg, respectively.

Funding for CCI started to flow in Fiscal Year 20 (FY20), with the Hub receiving its first infusion of funds in July 2019 and the Nodes in February 2020. We have an ambitious goal: to establish Virginia as a global leader in cybersecurity, and by doing so to help diversify the economy of the Commonwealth, attracting industry investment and jobs. This report highlights some of the major accomplishments from the past fiscal year, which are indicative of what the CCI network can still achieve for the Commonwealth:

  1. Leverage: One key promise of CCI  is that the investment that the Commonwealth is making will be leveraged to increase our competitiveness in attracting additional research funding. We  already see  clear results: In FY20, the eight faculty members in the CCI Hub have attracted a total of $19.4M in new research funding, a 2-to-1 return on the investment made by the Commonwealth. The four CCI regional Nodes report a combined total of $64.3M in active research grants to support CCI-related research. These impressive results demonstrate the multiplicative power of the investment made in CCI, and that we are extremely well positioned to establish Virginia as the premier location in the nation for cyber innovation and research. A significant proportion of this external funding originates from the federal government, reflecting the strong investments being made at the national level in the CCI focus areas of cybersecurity, autonomous systems, and data.

  2. Scale: A unique feature of CCI is that we bring together more than 300 researchers across 39 institutions of higher learning. This large-scale collaboration increases our visibility as a top player in the cybersecurity arena and enables us to compete for large programs. An example of this new ability to compete for large grants is the participation of CCI researchers in a major proposal for a trustworthy AI research center, led by VCU with participation from University of Virginia, Marymount University, GMU, ODU, and Virginia Tech. Another example is a large effort in cyber-manufacturing involving VCU, GMU, and VT.  These are areas where, without CCI, any individual university would not have the critical mass necessary to be competitive in a major program.  

  3. Collaboration: CCI actively promotes collaboration among Virginia researchers. The CCI Leadership Council, consisting of the Hub and Node leadership, meets bi-weekly and coordinates, encourages, and funds these collaborations.  Examples abound:  a program to build the cyber workforce, funded by the Northern Virginia Node of CCI involves GMU, James Madison University (JMU), Marymount University, University of Mary Washington, Shenandoah University,  Germanna Community College  and Lord Fairfax Community College; the INNOVATE Cyber Challenge run by the Coastal Virginia Node of CCI funded students from ODU, Christopher Newport University, ECPI, Norfolk State University, William & Mary, and Tidewater Community College; the CCI Fellows program funds researchers from GMU, UVA, VT, VCU, ODU, NSU, and Radford University working closely with the CCI Hub leadership and faculty.  

  4. Innovation: The CCI NoVA Node is supporting three Virginia start-ups through translational research development grants, each focusing on the commercialization of a cybersecurity technology. The CoVA Node graduated an inaugural class of 24 undergraduates from six institutions who took part in their INNOVATE  Cyber Challenge: this next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs worked in teams to propose solutions to cybersecurity problems and advance their ideas by  creating business models  with support from the ODU Entrepreneurial Center.  The newly formed CCI Innovation Committee is working with industry and local government to develop reverse pitch and proof-of-concept funding programs to be launched in FY21.  

  5. Research Infrastructure: We are establishing unique research infrastructure in 5G security and AI Assurance for use by researchers and innovators in Virginia. The CCI 5G testbed is distributed across five locations in Virginia and represents an investment of $8.7M by the CCI Hub and Nodes. Our 5G testbed is unique in its close alignment with key verticals empowered by 5G, its focus on cybersecurity, and unparalleled access to licensed spectrum. The AI Assurance testbed is establishing a distributed, interdisciplinary,  virtual exchange to develop and test AI technologies. Both testbeds have already attracted considerable interest from industry and government agencies. Through our 5G testbed investment we became a founding member of a commercial-grade testbed effort led by the CTIA, which represents the US telecommunications industry, from carriers and equipment manufacturers to mobile app developers and content creators.  

  6. Experiential Learning: From an internship program focusing on cybersecurity startups to a statewide drone competition, CCI is funding unique experiential learning opportunities for Virginia students, complementing the already strong degree granting cybersecurity programs available throughout the Commonwealth. These experiences expose students to state-of-the art technologies and problems in areas such as cyber-crime and data poisoning in satellite reconnaissance, and spark early interest in cybersecurity topics through involvement in a new drone racing competition. We are also funding internships in small and medium size cybersecurity firms to better prepare students for careers in cybersecurity. 

  7. Relevance: The CCI research fields are of particular relevance to the current times.  This year, we ran a webinar series highlighting how our researchers work on technologies that impact our response to the COVID-19 crisis, from work at GMU in increasing the resilience of healthcare systems to cyberattacks, to advanced programs at W&M that support secure online operation of court proceedings. We are also discussing a partnership with local governments on privacy-preserving aspects of COVID-19 contact tracing and prevention.

In all of the above, we are actively engaging with industry: to build our 5G testbed, to design and fund an innovation challenge, and to interact directly with our students. There are a few things that industry partners look for when they seek to engage with academia: reputation, to work with the leading researchers in the world in their area of interest; capacity for Intellectual Property generation; and access to top quality graduates. In CCI, they can find all three. These engagements will ultimately lead to high-quality jobs and a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in cybersecurity and autonomous systems in Virginia.

Most of this report is devoted to the accomplishments of this first year of CCI. The last chapter outlines our long-term goals and the main activities that we have planned for FY21. The CCI strategic goals can be summarized as follows:

CCI will establish organizational structures that incorporate advice from a broad array of stakeholders and mechanisms that assess the impact that the initiative has in Virginia, the Nation, and the world. These include a Technical Advisory Board with participation from leading industry practitioners, government representatives, entrepreneurs, and academic researchers, and an Inclusion and Diversity Committee charged with increasing participation of under-represented groups in the cybersecurity workforce.

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