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George Mason to Launch Nation’s First Center for Small Business AI Innovation with $1M Grant

June 28, 2024 | by: Buzz McClain

In a groundbreaking move set to bolster the economic competitiveness of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) across Virginia, George Mason University has been awarded a $1 million grant to establish the nation’s first Center for AI Innovation for Economic Competitiveness (CAIIEC).

This pioneering initiative aims to place Virginia at the forefront of artificial intelligence (AI) adoption among SMEs, which often fly under the radar in discussions dominated by federal and big-tech AI advancements.

The $1 million grant, which was sponsored by Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, is directed through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The center will draw expertise from several George Mason colleges, including the Schar School of Policy and Government, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the College of Engineering and Computing.

“Small and medium enterprises are the backbone of the U.S. economy at the local level,” said the Schar School’s J.P. Singh, the Distinguished University Professor serving as principal investigator. “We will work with SMEs to strengthen their efforts in AI adoption all over Virginia and learn from global cases such as Germany, where its famed SMEs have been called ‘the hidden champions.’”

“I’m excited George Mason’s Center for AI Innovation for Economic Competitiveness is receiving $1 million in federal funding, which I was proud to have helped secure in the recent government funding bill,” said Senator Kaine. “This will help prepare small businesses and Virginians to harness AI and lead to new opportunities for economic growth and jobs in the commonwealth.”

The new center promises to provide much-needed leadership, support, and training to these enterprises, ensuring they do not get left behind in the rapidly evolving AI landscape. George Mason’s interdisciplinary team, comprising computer scientists, public policy experts, economists, environmental and medical scientists, and ethicists, is uniquely positioned to drive this initiative.

“I am proud to have helped secure funding for the Center for AI Innovation for Economic Competitiveness at George Mason,” said Senator Warner in a statement. “This investment will help position Virginia as a leader in AI development by creating programs to help small businesses and communities thrive in the digital market, marking a huge win for Virginians across the commonwealth.”

The university has long been a leader in AI research, and the center aims to extend this expertise beyond academia to make a tangible impact on local businesses.

“Here is another great example of how George Mason continues to deliver on our commitment to access and community-engaged technology diffusion, partnering with diverse communities in new and innovated ways,” said Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Economic Impact Andre Marshall. “What better way to broadly support our local and national economy by providing our small businesses with the disruptive tech and best practices that will shape our future?”

The center will both train and encourage students at George Mason to work with SMEs in Virginia, Singh added, highlighting the initiative’s educational component.

Co-principal investigator Amarda Shehu, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and a longtime AI researcher, emphasized the practical benefits the center will offer.

“As an AI researcher, I see firsthand how fast AI is moving,” said Shehu, who is also associate dean for AI Innovation in the College of Engineering and Computing and associate vice president for research at George Mason’s Institute for Digital Innovation (IDIA). “I also get to see through my various interactions with industry that such a pace can be challenging, particularly for small businesses. So, we thought about how Research 1 universities, such as George Mason, can unlock the power of AI for small and medium enterprises.”

This center will do that, she said.

“To respond to AI technologies and regulatory requirements moving rapidly, the center will develop an AI toolkit to help small and medium enterprises capture and operationalize the value of AI for the enterprise,” she said. “This is much needed to better position industry in an innovative and competitive environment.”

The center is a collaboration between the Schar School, IDIA, the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, and the Center for Regional Analysis (CRA). These four entities will leverage their existing collaborative connections to jointly oversee and manage the project.

Project leaders include Singh, who is also codirector of George Mason’s Center for Advancing Human-Machine Partnership and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow with the Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin; Shehu; Terry Clower, CRA director; Naoru Koizumi, Schar School professor and associate dean of research and grants; and Jesse Kirkpatrick, research associate professor and codirector of the Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center.

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