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Omaha Magazine

New Center Promotes Deeper Roots in Metro

Oct 01, 2021 03:21PM ● By Charlie Litton
blonde woman sits at NCITE Center

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

The first ripples of impact from the one-year-old international counterterrorism consortium at the University of Nebraska at Omaha hint at larger waves in the future.

Waves big enough to boost the local economy; entrench the metro’s national security industry as a major player; and establish Omaha and UNO as crown jewels in the national security apparatus.

The National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center officially launched in July 2020 after winning an intensely competitive grant. The $36.5 million award is believed to be the single-largest federal grant ever secured in the University of Nebraska system. 

The grant places UNO in the center of an international coalition of 17 additional universities and research institutions. An important part of the coalition is translating the resulting research and data into real-world innovations and applications: The kind of innovation that can become products or the basis of new startup companies that produce high-growth, high-paying jobs. 

“Projections show that in Omaha alone, the demand for information security positions could increase by 40 percent,” Pete Thompson, chief operating officer of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said, via email. “These are the kind of high-skill, high-wage jobs that the region is looking to add to the workforce.”

The center could further stimulate that growth in producing graduates who are highly trained or experts in national security fields. 

“A program focused on advancing the knowledge and skills necessary to work in the industry is positive for greater Omaha,” Thompson said. “The more of these skilled professionals we’re able to catalyze here, the deeper and more attractive our available workforce becomes.”

Gina Ligon, the founding director of NCITE, has big ideas about the potential impact her consortium could create within the next 10 years. That includes adding to UNO’s burgeoning prestige with a center that evolves into the national security equivalent of something like the Mayo Clinic.

“Why can’t we be the counterterrorism school?” Ligon said. “Why can’t we be known for that nationally? That’s the end goal: Build an academic program that, when you think of where you go to get this kind of training, you think of Omaha.” 

The paint is barely dry on their new facility within the Rod Rhoden Business Innovation Center at Mammel Hall on UNO’s Aksarben campus, and NCITE is already filled to capacity. Seven new full-time faculty, including five tenure-track positions, have been filled. Each of those researchers are expected to secure additional funding to further their own research. 

“We got to recruit the best of the best to come here to build this center in the middle of the country,” Ligon said. “We will legitimately have the largest number of Ph.D.s who study terrorism in the country because of this.”

That could amount to additional funding pouring into the university system and creating more opportunities for students and locals alike. Already, about 114 students in the consortium benefit from the program with some form of financial support. 

“I think what’s interesting is the number of jobs it’s already created and student scholarships it’s created, and then the exponential number it will create as a result of that,” Ligon said. 

Right now, the educational opportunities for national security-minded UNO students amounts to a certification they can add to their major field of study. But Ligon expects several major fields of study and graduate programs in national security areas will soon be added to the UNO curriculum.

“The students that we have been attracting to work with us are coming for the mission, and to be a part of something bigger,” Ligon said. 

She added that the low cost of living and exemplary work ethic make Omaha an ideal location for
the work.

“The students here are so much more eager to be involved in this kind of work than anyplace that I’ve been,” Ligon said.

While increasing knowledge and understanding of the myriad elements related to combating and preventing terrorism, the commercialization aspect is a more tangible impact. 

Researchers within the NCITE program have already submitted two new inventions to UNO’s technology transfer and commercialization office, UNeMed. UNeMed works with inventors and innovators at UNO and the University of Nebraska Medical Center to secure intellectual property rights, such as U.S. patents, and additional support to further develop ideas and inventions into products on the marketplace.

“The research at NCITE has many real world applications,” Michael Dixon, president and CEO at UNeMed, said, “and we’re excited to work with the team to help make sure those innovations are developed into tools that help make the world a better and safer place.”

NCITE innovations range from information sharing systems that could help prevent school violence to artificial intelligence applications that predict what kind of social media sentiment precedes violence in a given geographic area.

Perhaps the most immediate impact to the area, will be NCITE’s ability to attract national security experts and business people to the city for regular meetings and seminars. Included in that are planned annual conferences that could bring about 200 people to city hotel rooms, restaurants, and other local service providers.

Visit unomaha.edu/ncite for more information.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann