a The Medical Center of the Americas Foundation is working to build a high-tech biomedical industry in El Paso. They’ll be one step closer if they can secure the funding for a super computer this year.
“This is really the direction that most new research buildings are taking,” said MCA president Emma Schwartz.
Schwartz has been visiting Austin, lobbying state representatives, hoping they’ll reward the El Paso region with $4 million to buy a small, Hewlett-Packard Apollo 8000 high-performance computing center -- a supercomputer.
“A supercomputer is kind of a catch-all term for any computer that’s at the forefront of processing capabilities,” said RedSky manager Stephen Voglewede. RedSky is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the MCA that has plans to build a team of scientists, researchers and biomedical executives that would buy time from the MCA to use the supercomputer for its own research. RedSky also plans to attract other companies to use the high-performance computing center.
What is it?
A supercomputer is measured by looking at how many calculations it can do within a certain span of time. The fastest computers right now can do one quadrillion calculations per second at the minimum, 38 quadrillion at the maximum.
“It’s kind of a hard perspective to get a handle on,” Voglewede admits. “Essentially what it’s doing is performing really, really fast searches for information, much faster than a human could.”
For example, there are computers that can beat any human, the best humans, in a game of chess. IBM has now built a computer that can beat any human in Jeopardy.
For the MCA though, a high-performance computing center would be a leap into the future of biomedical research – for less money. Schwartz explains biomedical research is expensive. A way to save money is to test a theory on a supercomputer, rather than bench-testing the theory.
For example, a researcher could take a theory to a mathematician who would write the algorithms to test it. Then, it could be run on a supercomputer for $1. If you had bench-tested it, the test might have cost $3. If the theory didn’t work, it wouldn’t be such a financial heartbreak. But if the theory did work, you’d have a higher chance of success during bench testing.
“To have that computing power – it’s really the wave of the future of high-tech research,” said Schwartz.
“We’re seeing them more and more in university research settings. If we’re going to build and have a state-of-the-art building, we really need to have a high-performance computing center in it.”
Having super-computing capabilities in El Paso means carving out a high-tech sector, according to Schwartz, something the Borderland currently can’t offer. Most science, research, mathematics and computer science jobs are in San Diego, Los Angeles, Austin and Boston. A strong high-tech community here means more high-tech jobs, which are growing rapidly and pay well.
“If you’re a parent and you want your kids to stay home, we’re trying to build an interesting, high-tech industry that will keep our talent in the area,” Schwartz said.
From an economic standpoint, the more companies that come to this region for its high-performance computing center, the more businesses there are to support law firms, accounting firms and a myriad of other services. Schwartz aligns the MCA’s goal with the economic development strategies the City of El Paso is working toward.
“We have a large Mexican-American population here,” said Voglewede. “Why not be the go-to in this world for Mexican-American population studies? I think we can build a strong enough case around unique opportunities like that – where we’ll be able to build this system.”
The MCA is starting the legwork, hoping it will support a case for a specialized line item in the Texas legislature this session. The MCA is currently building $29 million-worth of infrastructure to support a high-performance supercomputer with funding from philanthropy and a loan on the building. The infrastructure includes rooms with depressed access floors with a steel frame and cooling systems. Schwartz said she hopes representatives will see the MCA’s commitment to getting this supercomputer to El Paso, and be more likely to cut out $4 million of the state’s budget to pay for it.
But even then, $4 million is just the beginning. More sophisticated supercomputers cost upwards of $30 million. The MCA wants the smallest computer on the market and then to grow it organically.
“The way the technology works is, we can start adding parts in a very efficient way over time,” Schwartz said. “We’re very fortunate because this new technology has a much smaller footprint than older supercomputers. What we will be able to build here will be more energy efficient, take up less space and need less infrastructure to support it.”
Schwartz and Voglewede have no idea what the MCA’s chances of getting the funding are. But they do know they’re not going to give up on the idea.
“It’s really up to our elected officials to do what they can do and see if they can make this happen,” Schwartz said. “And if it doesn’t happen this time around, maybe we’ll try the next time around.”
“We’re committed to building this,” Voglewede adds. “We’ll pursue grants. Even if we get this money, we’ll pursue more grants. We think this is something that would be really powerful for doing research.”