O’Neil’s cyber venture draws state support

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A few years ago, the O’Neil Group was quietly successful. It owned Braxton Technologies, a satellite control and maintenance firm, a staffing company, an engineering firm, a real estate business and a property management firm, among others.

Then CEO Kevin O’Neil made the first announcement that surprised the local business community: He’d purchased the U.S. Bank Building downtown at the corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon, and would move Braxton into it. Just over a year ago came the second announcement: He was planning an industry campus to train engineers, provide co-working and incubator space and create a laboratory-like setting for companies to collaborate and research — and do it all from downtown Colorado Springs.

Earlier this week, O’Neil surprised the city with yet another ambitious announcement: The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade gave him a $750,000 grant to create a cyber research and development laboratory and operations center.

The grant will cover much of the construction and renovation needed to build the Cyber and Space Operations Center at Catalyst Campus downtown.

“Kevin chose to have it here, to invest in downtown Colorado Springs,” said Ingrid Richter, economic development director at Catalyst Campus. “It’s important that this center is here — it will be the first of its kind in the country.”

Partners of Catalyst Campus, which include Braxton and the O’Neil Group, will provide an additional $1.5 million to establish the center — a place to develop and test satellite, space and Global Positioning System technologies — and ultimately field the new technologies for commercial use.

O’Neil’s foray into the cyber realm is focused on very large systems.

“We want to work on utility systems, on space systems, satellites, on very large terrestrial systems,” he said. “We did this because we found a lack of industry collaboration, and a lack of space for research and development. There’s no way for companies to come together to innovate. We’re doing our part as part of the community cyber conversation — but our fundamental interest is in space.”

Acknowledging that “cyber” industries cover a gamut of businesses, from those involved in cybersecurity to those who are consumers or analysts, Richter says the O’Neil Group wants to achieve something very innovative and different.

“What we do here is very different than a typical cyber company,” she said. “And we can bring these national companies together to create something unique.”

O’Neil’s efforts already have been successful. He’s signed two contracts with the Air Force Research Laboratory, but says the lab won’t let him reveal what they will work on together. He says the Air Force is working more toward transferring technologies created in the lab to the private sector. Catalyst Campus will play a role in assisting the government’s efforts.

The center will include a classified area, but also laboratories, co-working spaces, conference rooms, a kitchen and a restaurant. The goal, Richter says, is more collaboration, more partnerships.

“We’re looking at project-based solutions,” she said. “So that’s the environment we’re creating. If someone needs a lab that will fit five people and they only need it for a certain period of time — they can come here. And, if they want, they can share their innovations for others to build on.”

Billed as the only space-and-satellite private research laboratory of its kind, it’s a wickedly ambitious project with an equally ambitious timeline. O’Neil said the first phase for the cyber center will open by September.

The goals are staggering: In the first 12 months, O’Neil projects it will bring in $40 million in direct economic benefit and $70 million in indirect benefits.

“The growth is exponential,” he said. “And it is all going to happen here in downtown Colorado Springs. This is unheard of in the aerospace industry — the opportunity for commercial applications and workforce training is exponential.”

While things seemed quiet inside Catalyst Campus, Richter says they’ve been moving quickly to put the pieces in place. The campus curricula for workforce training in cyberspace and engineering is designed and has received accreditation from the state. Construction is well underway — despite delays that always come with renovating older buildings.

O’Neil hints at other, equally ambitious announcements coming in early 2016 — partnerships with state and federal agencies that will put Catalyst Campus on the radar of aerospace companies, federal research laboratories and cutting-edge researchers.

Kevin O’Neil’s efforts serve to highlight the opportunities in cyber industries that can germinate and sprout in Colorado Springs, given the right mix of experts, innovation and collaboration.

As groups like UCCS and the U.S. Air Force Academy begin to create a footprint in cyber defense and security, the Catalyst Campus could be the place that brings it all together.