Forge Institute to establish cybersecurity consortium with UA Little Rock, UAPB & Acxiom

December 6-12, 2021

By The Daily Record staff 


As cyber security concerns continue to be heightened during the pandemic, two University of Arkansas institutions are joining together with Little Rock cybersecurity firm Forge Institute to get more college students into the computer science and technology field.


The University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock), the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) and Forge Institute on Wednesday (Dec. 1) announced that they have collaborated to establish the Consortium for Cyber Innovation (CCI) with the purpose of developing and aligning cyber education and growing applied research capabilities in the state of Arkansas. 


“The Consortium for Cyber Innovation is monumental to developing our high-tech workforce and developing new capabilities to prevent, detect and mitigate emerging technology risks to businesses, including our nation’s critical infrastructure,” said Forge Institute CEO Lee Watson. “Both campuses already have outstanding undergraduate and graduate Computer Science programs, cybersecurity resources, and world-class faculty. We’re excited to lend our expertise to this very important endeavor which will help fill the coming 3.4 million job gap.”


Forge Institute, founded by Watson in 2018, develops capabilities to solve broad challenges in emerging technology, cybersecurity and national security. Its experienced cyber operators and leadership team have decades of expertise in corporate and national security cyber defense operations. They are leveraging their extensive national network to promote workforce training and research collaborations. By joining forces with the academic resources of UA Little Rock and UAPB and industry partners like Acxiom, the CCI creates a strategic industry cluster in emerging technologies that will support national defense and enhance Arkansas as a Cyber Defense State.


“We’re extremely excited to build this collaboration with Forge Institute,” said Dr. Brian Berry, vice provost for research and dean of the UA Little Rock graduate school. “We view cybersecurity as an important field of study for our students, and the expertise Forge Institute lends offers a real-world perspective that can’t be simulated in the classroom.”


This collaboration expands an existing successful collaboration between UA Little Rock and Forge Institute. For example, students who complete the Forge Institute’s IT/Cyber Fundamentals professional development course can apply to receive three hours of academic credit in UA Little Rock’s recently launched bachelor’s degree program in cybersecurity. This recognition of learning outside of higher education is a bold step towards how colleges and universities can modernize their curricula to meet the needs of today’s students and industry. 


The agreement was signed by the university chancellors – Dr. Christina Drale of UA Little Rock and Dr. Laurence Alexander of UA Pine Bluff – with Dr. Berry and Dr. Monsour Mortizavi serving as liaisons to the Forge Institute. Mortazavi, vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development at UAPB, said developing the computer science and cybersecurity workforce in the Arkansas Delta is a priority for the state’s largest Historically Black College and University (HBCU). 


“The CCI helps us accomplish this objective by collaborating with excellent partners within the cyber community,” said Mortazavi.


Earlier in January, Forge Institute, UA Little Rock, and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (U of A) formed the CCI partnership that resulted in National Security Agency (NSA)-funded academic training and research programs. This includes the GenCyber summer camp for 7-12 graders and the Healthcare Cybersecurity Certification research project. Further, the CCI leverages numerous other United States government partnerships, including the US Department of Energy (DOE) to develop cybersecurity solutions for critical infrastructure in the electric sector.


An immediate goal of the CCI is to create a powerhouse Strategic Initiative Office (SIO) with the goal of sourcing funded grant resources for building applied learning and research experiences for students, faculty and industry, developing new innovation opportunities, and facilitating technology transfer capabilities at the speed of business. The SIO will allow the consortium to obtain and manage large-scale federal funding for creating a sustainable network of education and research efforts in emerging technology and national defense. 


Future research projects will include developing next-generation artificial intelligence capabilities to manage cybersecurity threats to both critical infrastructure and military and national defense networks. Advanced machine learning technologies will increase efficiency and expand near-term industry use of readily-available quantum computing capabilities.


Globally, cybersecurity has become a trillion-dollar industry with career opportunities open to thousands of Arkansans, Forge officials said. Because of the state’s deep experience with data management, logistics, fintech and other data-driven industries, Arkansas is well positioned to become a rallying point for the nation’s cybersecurity efforts. These opportunities produce good paying jobs for Arkansans.