Regional effort links academics and entrepreneurs to economic development
Startups. Capital. Entrepreneurship. These weren’t always terms in Amy White’s everyday lexicon.
A scientist by training, White has spent 15 years teaching microbiology, focusing on the world that happens in the laboratory.
“I really never thought beyond the pipette, did I,” she recalled at a recent biotech event, Game Changer Week, held in Roanoke.
“Then I met Erin [Burcham] a few years ago, and I began to realize how valuable the interaction between academics and partners in economic development and industry was,” she said. “And in my head, the silos collapsed.”
Connecting the dots between the classroom, the research world and the business world has been central to growing efforts to expand Southwest Virginia’s biotech and innovation ecosystem, a list of collaborators including White, who is now dean of STEM for Virginia Western Community College, and Burcham, who leads both the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and Verge, a regional alliance that runs a startup incubator program.
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The transition from scientist to inventor to CEO is not always easy, local leaders said.
Hal Irvin, associate vice president of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at the VTC, said that for a scientist, success is often measured in milestones like publishing a paper about their findings.
Building a business to take an idea to market — and fully realizing its ability to help others — is often an alien skill set, he said.
“Most of them don’t have business degrees or business experience,” Irvin said. “They’re brilliant on their own, but that other part of their careers isn’t why they got into science. It’s something brand new for them. All we can do in this area to help these people be successful in starting businesses…and staying in the area going forward is really, really important.
“That’s where these teams come in.”
Groups like RAMP, Verge’s business incubator, and the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center are stepping up efforts to help new entrepreneurs navigate the complex and costly process of securing a new biomedical breakthrough for patients.
RAMP is working with the city and state to launch a one-stop shop for new entrepreneurs that streamlines access to resources, mentors, and other opportunities. The Innovation Studio, as it is called, is still under development, but its supporters estimate that in its first five years it could help accelerate the creation of 250 new industry jobs with salaries totaling more than $21 million.
“We have so many resources in this area, but they’re a bit scattered,” Burcham said. “Our vision is therefore to have a physical location where entrepreneurs can come and seek resources around capital, talent, enveloping services.”
“We are trying to bring more capital to the region and more resources in a structured and formalized way to make things really easy,” she said. “To just relieve our contractors of these difficulties and let them really focus on the technical aspect.”
This growing toolkit includes new partnerships with George Mason University’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program – an initiative that supports fledgling companies that aren’t yet ready for the more intensive services of programs like RAMP – and with Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS incubator, which can provide more comprehensive startups with resources like lab space and connections to funding opportunities.
“It’s a whole new network of mentors, access to capital, just a lot of opportunity there,” Burcham said. “We try to set the stage for them to be successful, and have several stages of education and resources.”
Last year, JLABS opened a hub in DC in partnership with the new Children’s National Hospital Research and Innovation Campus. Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute are also part of this venture and are hiring research teams focused on pediatric cancer treatments to be based at the facility.
The proximity creates an important bond between local researchers and JLABS, officials said. The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, a launchpad for new technology companies, is set to become a virtual offshoot of JLABS with access to its mentors and other services. The first round of applications for the virtual residency program was released this year, with a total of five slots available, with more to be added in the future.
This collaboration was first announced last December just as the VTCRC was awarded a state grant to build a shared lab space to help startups that need access to the equipment but cannot afford the cost of their own furnished laboratory.
The 25-unit lab space will operate as a coworking facility with slots available for rent. Studies have found that a shortage of accessible lab facilities is hampering the growth of start-up businesses in the region.
The overall project is on track to help generate 125 jobs, with an average annual salary of $80,000, in its first five years, according to grant forecasts.
The shared lab space is slated to open in late 2022 or early 2023. And its details should lay out a plan for a similar, but larger, facility slated to arrive in Roanoke in 2024.
The 30,000 square foot project will build on work begun in Blacksburg, officials said. The as-yet-unknown facility, which will also house the innovation studio, won state support earlier this year with $15.7 million earmarked from the Commonwealth budget.
Roanoke City is on board to contribute an additional $1.96 million toward programming costs. Carilion is another partner and owner of the building where the project hopes to open.
The unifying mission behind the multi-part effort is to make the region a magnet for the high-demand field of biotechnology and life sciences, officials said. The growing industry employs more than 26,500 people statewide in high-paying jobs and contributes $8 billion to Virginia’s economy.
Since its founding in 2010, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute has grown on its own to cover more than 550 staff members and annual grants totaling approximately $40 million. The value of scholarships has increased by 20% in the last year alone.
Those who work at the facility, which unveiled a major expansion in 2021, conduct cutting-edge research in areas including brain function, cancer cells, heart disease and memory. The jobs generated pay an average full-time salary of about $90,900, about twice the median household income in Roanoke.
Ongoing research progress has led to several spin-off companies with the help of groups like RAMP, said Irvin, associate vice president of the Fralin Institute.
Raising those numbers and cultivating an environment that allows startups to stay here in the region is the goal, he added.
It often comes down to people in the valleys, officials said — leaders working to extend resources to educators who are a skilled workforce.
Virginia Western Community College is preparing to launch a new two-year degree program next fall designed specifically around biotechnology. The program will offer nearly double the lab experience of an existing certificate program offered as an add-on to other degrees.
Students in the new courses will either be able to transfer to a four-year institution after graduation or take professional exams to enter the job market directly. The idea is to boost the region’s talent pool to meet both existing needs and projected needs as new labs and businesses open, the educators said.
VWCC also wants to help more students understand the opportunities that can be found in the field, White said. Last spring, a survey found that half of Virginians didn’t even know that federally funded biotech research was already happening in the state and had been for years.
White echoed something similar about what she hears from students. Many are unaware of the range of jobs, research programs and career paths that can be tapped.
“We’re so into this world that we forget there’s a whole population that doesn’t realize it,” White said, adding that VWCC is partnering with local schools and groups like RAMP to change. that. “…Very few people will graduate from our regional high schools and say, I want to go into biotechnology, if they never know it’s an option.”
Events like Game Changer Week are also an opportunity to spread the word and build connections among researchers, organizers said. The event, held September 13-15, offered a slate of free programs and open houses to learn about local initiatives, explore lab space, network at social hours, or hear from specialized conferences on industry sectors.
This year marked the second annual iteration of the gathering.
In welcoming remarks, Brett Malone, CEO of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, said he felt the mix of partners and resources the two valleys brought to the effort was heading towards something unique in the world. ‘industry.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years,” he said of his experience in the field. “And it looks like lightning in a bottle. This group that met at the regional level seems unique to me. We do some really cool stuff.