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Game changer: Regional effort connects academics and entrepreneurs with economic development

Game changer: Regional effort connects academics and entrepreneurs with economic development

Dr. Heather Lindberg of Western Virginia teaches proper pipette use during an introduction to biotechnology class on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Roanoke.

Scott B Yates


startups. capital. leading businesses. These weren’t always terms in Amy White’s everyday lexicon.

A trained scientist, White has dedicated 15 years to teaching microbiology, focusing on the world that takes place inside the laboratory.

“I never thought beyond a straw, right,” she recalled at a recent biotechnology event, Game Changer Week, held in Roanoke.

Then I met Erin [Burcham] A few years ago, I began to learn how invaluable the interaction between academics, partners in economic development, and industry was.” “And in my head, the silos just collapsed.”

Connecting the dots between the classroom, the research world, and the business world has been a major focus of the growing effort to expand the biotechnology and innovation ecosystem in southwest Virginia, according to a group of collaborators that includes White, who is now dean of Virginia’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Western Community College. and Burcham, who leads both the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and The Verge, a regional alliance that runs the startup incubator program.

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Local leaders said the transition from scientist to inventor to CEO doesn’t always come easy.

For a scientist, success is often measured in stages like publishing a paper about your findings, said Hal Irvine, associate vice president of the Fralin Institute for Biomedical Research at the Technical Training Center.

He said that building a company to bring an idea to market—and fully realizing its ability to help others—is often a foreign skill set.

“Most of them don’t have degrees or business backgrounds,” Ervin said. “They’re brilliant in their own right but that other part of their career isn’t why they got into science. It’s something new for them. Everything we can do in this region to help these people succeed in starting companies…and staying in the region going forward is something Really important.”

“This is where these teams come in.”

Groups like RAMP, the Verge business incubator, and the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center are stepping up efforts to help new entrepreneurs navigate the complex and expensive process of getting new biomedical advances to patients.

RAMP is working with the city and state to launch a one-stop-shop for new entrepreneurs with easy access to resources, mentors, and other opportunities. The Innovation Studio, as it’s called, is still in development but backers estimate that in its first five years it could help speed the creation of 250 new industry jobs with salaries of more than $21 million.

“We have a lot of resources in this area but they’re kind of scattered,” Burcham said. “So our vision is to have a physical site where entrepreneurs can come and get resources around capital, talent and comprehensive services.”

“We’re trying to bring more capital into the region and more resources in an organized and formal way to really make it easier,” she said. “Just to take those hardships off our entrepreneurs, and really let them focus on the technical side.”

This growing toolbox includes new partnerships with George Mason University’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program—an initiative that supports startups not yet ready for the more service-intensive programs like RAMP—and with Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS incubator, which can provide more fully-fledged companies. Startups that have resources such as lab space and connections to funding opportunities.

“This is a whole new network of mentors, access to capital, and a lot of opportunity out there,” Burcham said. “We’re trying to pave the way for them to succeed, and they have multiple stages of education and resources.”

Just last year, JLABS opened a center in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the new Research and Innovation Campus at Children’s National Hospital. Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute are part of this endeavor, and are hiring research teams focused on pediatric cancer treatments that will be based at the facility.

Officials said the proximity creates an important link between local researchers and JLABS. The Virginia Tech think tank, a launchpad for new technology companies, is set to become a virtual affiliate of JLABS with access to mentors and other services. The first round of applications for the Virtual Residence program launched this year, with a total of five slots available, and more to be added in the future.

The collaboration was first announced last December around the same time that VTCRC was awarded a government grant to build a shared lab space to help startups that need access to equipment but can’t afford their own furnished lab.

The 25-unit lab space will function as a co-working facility with slots available for rent. Studies found that the lack of accessible laboratory facilities was hampering the growth of early stage companies in the region.

Overall, the project is poised to help create 125 jobs, with an average annual salary of $80,000, over the first five years, according to grant projections.

The shared lab space is scheduled to open in late 2022 or early 2023. Its details are expected to lay out the blueprint for a similar, but larger, facility scheduled for Roanoke in 2024.

Officials said the 30,000-square-foot project will build on work that has begun in Blacksburg. The yet-to-be-named facility, which will also house the innovation studio, received state support earlier this year with $15.7 million in the Commonwealth budget earmarked for it.

Roanoke City is on board to contribute another $1.96 million for programming costs. Carilion is another partner and owner of the building the project hopes to open.

Officials said the unifying mission behind these multi-part efforts is a drive to make the region a magnet for the high-demand field of biotechnology and life sciences. The growing sector employs more than 26,500 people statewide, in well-paying jobs, and contributes $8 billion to Virginia’s economy.

Since its founding in 2010, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute alone has grown to cover more than 550 employees and annual grants totaling nearly $40 million. Grants have grown in value by 20% in the past year alone.

Those working out of the facility, which revealed a major expansion in 2021, are doing groundbreaking research in areas such as brain function, cancer cells, heart disease and memory. The jobs created pay an average full-time salary of about $90,900 — about twice the average Roanoke household income.

Ongoing research developments have led to many spin-offs from work with the help of groups like RAMP, said Irvine, associate vice president at the Fralin Institute.

He added that the aim is to increase these numbers and create an environment that allows startups to survive here in the region.

Officials said this often comes down to the people in the valleys — from leaders working to expand resources to teachers building a skilled workforce.

Virginia Western Community College is preparing to launch a new two-year program this fall specifically designed around biotechnology. The curriculum will offer approximately twice the amount of laboratory experience as an existing certificate program offered as a supplement to other degrees.

Students on the new courses will either be able to transfer to a four-year institution upon graduation or take vocational exams to move directly into the workforce. The teachers said the idea is to boost the pipeline of talent in the region to meet current needs and anticipated needs with the opening of new laboratories and companies.

White said VWCC also wants to help more students understand the opportunities that can be found in this field. Last spring, a survey found that half of Virginians were unaware that federally funded biotechnology research was actually taking place in the state and had been around for years.

White echoed something similar to what she hears from students. Not much is known about the range of jobs, research programs and career paths that can be taken advantage of.

“We’re so in this world that we forget there’s a huge population out there who just don’t realize it,” White said, adding that VWCC is partnering with local schools and groups like RAMP to change that. “…very few people would graduate from our regional high schools and say, I want to go into biotech, if they never knew it was an option.”

Organizers said events like Game Changer Week are also an opportunity to spread the word and build relationships among researchers. The event, which took place from September 13-15, offered a menu of free and open programs to learn more about local initiatives, explore lab space, network at social hours, or hear expert talks about industry sectors.

This year marked the second annual iteration of the rally.

In his welcome address, Brett Malone, CEO of Virginia Tech Corporate Research, said he felt the mix of partners and resources Valleys was bringing toward something unique in the industry.

“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years,” he said of his background in the field. “And that sounds like lightning in a bottle. This group meeting at the regional level seems unique to me. We’re doing some really cool things.”


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