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FSU Spin-Off Company to Play Lead Role in Protecting Nation's Ports

By: FSU Press Release
By: FSU Press Release

Tallahassee, FL - Pulling it together was a Herculean task that took some five years to complete, but now a massive training curriculum designed by Florida State University researchers to ensure the security of the nation’s 350 commercial ports is about to enter the marketplace.

A spin-off company, the Educational Development Group LLC (EDG), has been formed; through an agreement with the Florida State University Research Foundation, it has begun offering the security training program and its online reporting system to clients on a fee basis.

“FSU’s unusual skill in developing educational tools has earned us many challenging assignments from organizations that plan to use those tools for themselves,” said Vice President for Research Kirby Kemper. “In this effort, the FSU team was challenged to build the tools first, then find or create a business structure to deliver this critical security training.

“I’m proud of both the developers who have shown the courage of their convictions, and the support that my office was able to provide for their new venture.”

Florida State’s involvement with the port-security project dates back to 2005, when researchers with the university’s Center for National Security Training and Research (CNSTAR), a part of the Learning Systems Institute, signed a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a comprehensive system for training port workers, security guards, law enforcement officers and others. The agreement was soon followed by $6.2 million in research funding from the DHS. The department’s goal was to create a uniform, comprehensive set of courses for port employees in order to more effectively prevent, deter and respond to terrorist acts at the nation’s busy seaports — and to develop an online database that would allow ports to record and track their employees’ training histories. With 2.5 billion tons of cargo worth more than $2 trillion passing through U.S. seaports each year, the maritime transportation industry is critical to the nation’s economy, and security is a constant concern.

For much of the next four years, CNSTAR researchers, including Associate Professor Aubteen Darabi, the project leader, and Associate Professor Laura Lang, the Learning Systems Institute’s director, labored to develop the port-security curriculum and database. Working with subject-matter coordinator Fred Wilder and a team of instructional designers led by project manager Judd Butler, they produced a whole-system curriculum consisting of 530 self-contained lessons divided over eight separate courses. Taken either online or with an instructor, each individual lesson takes about 30 minutes to complete. The nature of a port worker’s job determines which lessons he or she would be required to take.

“At LSI, much of our research focuses on helping people be more efficient and effective in their work,” Lang said. “The port-security project is a great example of how improving someone’s performance can not only enhance lives, but save lives.”

The final product, completed in 2009, was named PortStar. The system was made available to all U.S. ports on Jan. 1 of this year, giving them new tools for delivery and management of security training. With online lessons, waterside facilities can train more employees at a lower cost and create a career ladder for security personnel. Not only can ports use the software to streamline their compliance reporting, employees can take their transcripts from one job to another. Through July, more than 3,000 trainees have enrolled and completed over 10,000 lessons using the PortStar system.

Despite its initial success, however, federal stakeholders, including the DHS, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, indicated that they could not provide additional funds for long-term maintenance of the program. Florida State was encouraged to market PortStar commercially via the private sector — which is exactly what it did.

Butler and Wilder, two of PortStar’s developers, formed a new company, EDG, in Tallahassee, and signed an agreement with the Florida State University Research Foundation that will allow EDG to make PortStar available to new clients on a fee basis. EDG will soon lease space at FSU’s newly dedicated Research Foundation Entrepreneurial Building, located at 3000 Commonwealth Blvd.

EDG took a big step toward commercialization on July 15, 2010, when it signed an agreement with Canadian company MacDonnell Security Risk Management to form a strategic partnership. Under the agreement, EDG will maintain, host and manage the PortStar curriculum and training management system, as well as offer IT support for users and lead all research and development efforts. MacDonnell, meanwhile, will provide marketing and sales support, as well as instructor-led training for clients using the PortStar curriculum. “MacDonnell is a good fit for us,” says Wilder. “They’re responsible for the majority of port security training in Canada, and they wanted to expand their operation into U.S. ports. It seemed natural that we get together.”

In addition, EDG will assist MacDonnell, which has provided training and risk-management services to the Canadian maritime industry since 2003, with its efforts to replicate MacDonnell's popular annual port-security conference in the United States.

“Our port customers have come to expect a very high standard of training,” said Ralston MacDonnell, president of MacDonnell Group Consulting Ltd. “We searched the world over for a quality product that would be recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Maritime Administration and FEMA, and incorporate Web-based learning. The timing of PortStar was perfect, and the expert team Florida State University has assembled will provide stellar service to the ports of America from our base here in Tallahassee.”

EDG and MacDonnell began offering PortStar to new clients on a fee basis on Oct. 1. Butler says the new partners are excited to get started.

“Signing agreements in July generated a burst of energy and good momentum, and we’ll need that,” he said. “FSU and LSI staff have been very supportive throughout this process, but transitioning from FSU project to commercial product in 60 days is still a wild ride.”


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