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State to seek clawbacks with Google

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico will impose clawback provisions to recover as much of the state’s investment as possible in Titan Aerospace , a subsidiary of Google Inc. that has been developing a solar-powered drone for the Internet search giant at the Moriarty Municipal Airport.

Google announced on Tuesday that it would pull Titan out of New Mexico, possibly relocating operations near Google headquarters in California’s Bay Area. But the company gave no explanation for its decision, and state officials are now exploring how much money can be retrieved from the economic development assistance it provided to Google to establish operations in Moriarty.

State investment included nearly $1 million for infrastructure improvements at the Moriarty airport to pave the way for Google to build new facilities there, plus about $141,000 in Job Training Incentive Program funds granted to Titan in 2013.

Titan has been working since 2012 to develop solar-powered drones that can function as an inexpensive replacement for communication satellites, which is something both Google and the social media giant Facebook have pursued to bring Internet service to remote areas around the globe. Google acquired Titan last year for an undisclosed price.

“Google has said it intends to shut down, although the time frame is in flux,” said New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela. “Google’s decision is a disappointment, and the state intends to work with the company in having clawback provisions enforced. We expect that a very sizeable portion of the state funds will be paid back to the taxpayers of New Mexico.”

The state will also work with any Google employees laid off in Moriarty to  find new job opportunities that match their skill sets, Barela said. About 45 people are currently employed at Titan, and it’s not clear how many of them would relocate to the Bay Area.

Google has yet to publicly explain why it decided to cease operations in New Mexico. In a short statement released on Tuesday, the company said it remains “optimistic” about the potential of solar-powered drones for Internet connectivity, and that it looks forward to Titan’s “continued progress and collaboration alongside other Google teams in the Bay Area.”

The company faced a serious setback last May, when its solar drone crashed at the Moriarty airport shortly after takeoff. In addition, former Titan CEO Vern Raburn — who continued to lead Titan after Google took over — stepped down from his position about six weeks ago.

“I’m no longer with the Titan operation,” Raburn told the Journal on Wednesday. “I moved into a much broader aviation role in Google and am now working on all kinds of advanced projects.”

Raburn, however, said he would not leave New Mexico, and he declined to discuss what aviation projects Google is still pursuing here.