The Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise facility stands out on Cajundome Boulevard, marked by a giant, egg-shaped glass appendage that rises more than two stories on the side of the building.
At night, it glows.
LITE — known most for its high-end, 3-D visualization capabilities — has been lauded as a symbol of Lafayette’s commitment to the technology sector, but the 9-year-old center in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Research Park is embarking on a critical new era as state funding has dried up and LITE seeks to chart a self-sustaining path to the future.
Over the past year, several positions have been left vacant, including that of CEO, and LITE officials are banking on technology upgrades they hope will attract new projects to boost revenue.
“I see exciting opportunities,” said Ramesh Kolluru, a LITE Commission member and UL-Lafayette’s vice president for research who is cheerfully optimistic despite obvious budgetary challenges.
The state paid to build the $27 million technology center, but the plan was for LITE to eventually generate most of its operating funds.
State support was at $2.5 million for the 2011-12 budget year and accounted for more than 75 percent of total revenue.
Effective July 1, state funding hit zero, and other sources of revenue have not risen enough to fill the gap.
Projected revenue for the current budget year is $1.3 million, with $400,000 of that coming from a reserve fund that will last only a few more years if not replenished.
To operate within the constraints of its new financial reality, LITE has cut expenses for next year by more than half when compared with four years ago.
“It really represents a retooling of the organization given the current budget,” said LITE Commission member Tom Cox, who is president and CEO of the Lafayette-based online retailer Golfballs.com.
LITE has worked to streamline utility and maintenance costs, but much of the savings have come from not replacing staff.
“We just made a conscious decision when people were moving off,” said LITE Chief Operating Officer Erin Ryan Marietta, who has worked at LITE for six years and was named COO last year.
The new budget no longer has money for an IT help desk technician or a system administrator — Marietta said both positions have been outsourced — and funding also was cut for the receptionist, a project development director, one of LITE’s two computer graphics artists and one of two software engineers.
The current budget also has no money for a CEO, a leadership post that became vacant last year when former LITE CEO Kam Ng left for another job.
UL-Lafayette administrator Paula Carson stepped in to serve as interim CEO before she left earlier this year to take an out-of-state job at another university.
No decision has been made on when that position might be filled.
“In the absence of having a CEO on staff, we have a very active board,” Marietta said.
LITE maintains a core staff of nine full-time employees, plus one part-time accountant and a software development intern.
Most of those employees are involved in managing the facility rather than developing technology — an event coordinator, marketing and business development director, housekeeper, maintenance worker, accountant, facility director.
Marietta said LITE is shifting away from keeping a substantial tech staff on the payroll, opting instead to bring in contract labor, depending on the demands of different projects.
Project revenue is one area of the budget LITE officials hope to boost in the near future.
LITE has invested about $440,000 in upgrades this year, including work to make its giant egg more user friendly.
While most residents have seen the outside of the egg, they likely have not experienced what’s inside — a six-sided, virtual reality cave of sorts designed to give users an immersive 3-D experience.
A doctor could walk through a digital model of heart, a geologist might visualize massive amounts of seismic testing and core sample data in search of oil reserves, an astronomer could fly through a 3-D universe, or a ship builder could tour a virtual model of a seacraft to identify problems before construction starts.
Those types of 3-D, interactive experiences have been the most talked about facet of LITE, but the old software used to power the egg was so “clunky and cumbersome” that it discouraged some potential users, said Kolluru, a computer scientist by training who has been an enthusiastic booster for LITE even before he was appointed earlier this year to the commission overseeing the facility.
He said the upgrades, which are underway, will make it easier and cheaper for university researchers and private companies to tap LITE as a resource.
“I think it will pay off significantly in terms of bringing new opportunity,” Kolluru said. “It opens it up for business users to come in and bring their data and for us to work with them quickly.”
Kolluru sees much potential in future partnerships with the Center for Visual and Decision Informatics, a national research center established in 2012 by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Drexel University.
CVDI, which Kolluru helped launch, is focused heavily on data visualization.
“Our researchers are excited about it,” Kolluru said of the upgrades at LITE.
While luring more public and private projects is a work in progress, LITE already has had some recent financial successes.
Revenue from renting the LITE theater for events and meetings has risen, and lease revenue from businesses that set up shop in the LITE facility has grown from $353,286 in 2011 to $750,000 in projected revenue for the budget year that began last month.
The Academy of Interactive Entertainment, a technical school for video game design and graphics; Pixel Magic, a movie visual effects company; and host of other tech companies have a home at LITE.
Earlier this year, the LITE staff moved to smaller accommodations to free up more prime real estate for paying tenants, Marietta said, and the facility is now completely leased out.
Lafayette Economic Development Authority President and CEO Gregg Gothreaux, whose organization helped oversee the push to make LITE a reality, said that despite challenges the facility might face, he has no doubt it has played a key role in attracting the increasing number of technology firms that have come to Lafayette in recent years, even if they don’t use LITE.
“It impresses the heck out of companies looking to do business here,” he said. “I think that what excites people is that here is a community, a university, that had the foresight to invest in technology.”