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Game changers: Regional effort links academics and entrepreneurs with economic development

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

Startups. Capital. Entrepreneurship. These weren’t always terms in Amy White’s daily lexicon.

A trained scientist, White dedicated 15 years to teaching microbiology, focusing on the world that happens within the laboratory.

“I really never thought beyond the pipette, right,” she recalled at a recent biotech event, Game Changer Week, that was organized in Roanoke.

“Then I met Erin [Burcham] quite a few years ago, and I started to learn about how the interaction between academics and economic development and industry partners was so valuable,” she said. “And in my head, the silos just came crashing down.”

Connecting the dots between the classroom, the research world and the business world has been a key focus of growing efforts to expand Southwest Virginia’s biotech and innovation ecosystem, said a slate of collaborators that included White, who’s 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.

The jump from scientist to inventor to CEO doesn’t always come easily, local leaders said.

Hal Irvin, an associate vice president with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, said for a scientist a success is often measured in milestones like getting to publish a paper about your findings.

Building a business to get an idea out to the marketplace — and fully realize its ability to help others — is often a foreign skillset, he said.

“Most of them don’t have business degrees or business backgrounds,” Irvin said. “They are brilliant in their own right but this other piece of their career is not why they got into science. It’s something brand-new to them. Everything that we can do in this region to help these people be successful in starting companies … and stay in the region moving 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 intensifying their efforts to help new entrepreneurs navigate the complex and expensive process of getting a new biomedical advancement to patients.

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

“We have so many resources in this region but they’re kind of scattered,” Burcham said. “So our vision is to have a physical location where entrepreneurs can come in for resources around capital, around talent, wraparound services.”

“We’re trying to bring in more capital to the region and more resources in a kind of structured, formalized manner to make it really easy,” she said. “To just kind of take that hardship off our entrepreneurs, and really let them focus on the technical side.”

That growing toolbox includes new partnerships with George Mason University’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program — an initiative that supports fledging enterprises not yet ready for the more intensive services of programs like RAMP — and with Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS incubator, which can provide more fully fleshed out startups with resources like lab space and connections to funding opportunities.

“That’s a whole new network of mentors, access to capital, just a lot of opportunities there,” Burcham said. “We’re trying to set the stage for them to succeed, and have multiple stages of education and resources.”

JLABS just last year opened a hub in D.C. in partnership with Children’s National Hospital’s new research and innovation campus. Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute are also part of that endeavor, and are hiring research teams with a focus in pediatric cancer treatments who will be based at the facility.

The proximity creates an important link between local researchers and JLABS, officials said. The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, a launching pad for new tech 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, and more to be added in the future.

That collaboration was first announced last December at the same time that VTCRC secured a state grant to build a shared laboratory space to help startups who need access to equipment but can’t shoulder the cost of their own furnished lab.

The 25-unit laboratory space will operate like a co-working facility with slots available for rent. Studies found a shortage of accessible lab facilities was hindering growth for early stage companies in the region.

The overall project is poised to help generate 125 jobs, with an average annual salary of $80,000, over its first five years, according to grant forecasts.

The shared lab space is scheduled to open in late 2022 or early 2023. And its details are expected to establish a blueprint for a similar, but larger, facility set to arrive in Roanoke in 2024.

That 30,000-square-foot project will build on the work started in Blacksburg, officials said. The as-yet-unnamed facility, which will also house the Innovation Studio, secured the backing of the state earlier this year with $15.7 million earmarked in the commonwealth’s budget for it.

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

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, officials said. The growing sector employs over 26,500 people statewide, in well-paid jobs, and contributes $8 billion to Virginia’s economy.

Since its founding in 2010, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute alone has grown to cover over 550 personnel and annual grants totaling about $40 million. The value of the grant awards grew by 20% in just the past year.

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

The research advances taking place have led to several business spin-offs with help from groups like RAMP, said Irvin, an associate vice president with the Fralin institute.

Growing those numbers and cultivating an environment that allows startups to stay here in the region is the goal, he added.

That often boils down to the people in the valleys, officials said — from the leaders working to expand resources to the educators building up a skilled workforce.

Virginia Western Community College is gearing up to launch a new two-year degree program next fall designed specifically around biotech. The curriculum will offer almost double the amount of lab experience as an existing certificate program offered as a supplement to other degrees.

Students in the new courses will be able to either transfer to a four-year institution at graduation or take professional exams to go straight into the workforce. The idea is to boost the region’s talent pipeline to meet both existing needs and projected needs as new labs and businesses open, 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 weren’t even aware that federally funded biotech research is already happening in the state and has been for years.

White echoed something similar about what she hears from students. Many don’t know about the array of jobs, research programs and career tracks that can be tapped into.

“We’re so in this world that we forget there’s a whole population out there that doesn’t realize that,” White said, adding 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 a chance to spread the word and build connections among researchers, organizers said. The event, held Sept. 13-15, offered a slate of free and open-door programs to learn more about local initiatives, explore lab space, network at social hours or hear specialized talks on sectors of the industry.

This year marked the second annual iteration of the gathering.

In the welcome remarks, Brett Malone, CEO of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, said he felt the mix of partners and resources that the two valleys were bringing to bear was building toward something unique in the industry.

“I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years,” he said of his background in the field. “And this feels like lightning in a bottle. This group that’s come together, regionally, feels unique to me. We’re getting some really cool things done.”

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Alicia Petska covers business and writes the Business Intel column. She can be reached at (540) 981-3319 or alicia.petska@roanoke.com.

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