startups. Capital city. entrepreneurship. Those weren’t always terms in Amy White’s daily lexicon.
A scientist by training, White spent 15 years teaching microbiology with a focus on the world that happens in the laboratory.
“I’ve really never thought beyond the eyedropper, right,” she recalled at a recent Roanoke biotech event, Game Changer Week.
“Then I met Erin [Burcham] A few years ago, I began to learn the value of interaction between academics and business development and industry partners,” she said. “And in my head, the silos just collapsed.”
Connecting the dots between the classroom, the research world, and the business world has been a focus of growing efforts to expand Southwest Virginia’s biotech and innovation ecosystem, said a number of staff, including White, who is now dean of STEM at the Virginia Western Community College is , and Burcham, who runs both the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and Verge, a regional alliance that runs a startup incubator program.
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The leap from scientist to inventor to CEO isn’t always easy, local executives said.
Hal Irvin, associate vice president of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, said success for a scientist is often measured by milestones, such as the ability to publish a paper about their findings.
Building a business to bring an idea to market — and making full use of its ability to help others — is often a foreign skill, he said.
“Most of them don’t have a business degree or commercial background,” Irvin said. “They’re brilliant in their own right, but that other part of their career isn’t why they went into science. It’s something new for her. Anything we can do in this region to help these people create successful businesses… and stay in the region in the future is really, really important.”
“That’s where these teams come in.”
Groups like RAMP, Verge’s corporate incubator, and the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center are stepping up efforts to help new entrepreneurs master the complex and expensive process of bringing new biomedical advances to patients.
RAMP is working with the city and state to create a one-stop shop for new entrepreneurs that streamlines access to resources, mentors, and other opportunities. The Innovation Studio, as it’s called, is still in development, but backers estimate it could help create 250 new jobs in the industry over the first five years, with salaries totaling over $21 million to accelerate.
“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 get resources around capital, talent and full service.”
“We’re trying to bring more capital into the region and more resources in a structured, formalized way to make it really easy,” she said. “To just take our entrepreneurs out of those difficulties and let them really focus on the technical side.”
This growing toolbox includes new partnerships with George Mason University’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program — an initiative that supports early stage companies not yet ready for the more intensive services of programs like RAMP — and with Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS incubator , which can provide more comprehensive solutions to start-ups with resources such as laboratory space and links to funding opportunities.
“It’s a whole new network of mentors, access to capital, just a lot of opportunities,” Burcham said. “We try to set the stage for their success and we have multiple levels of training and resources.”
JLABS opened a center in DC just last year in partnership with Children’s National Hospital’s new research and innovation campus. Virginia Tech and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute are also part of this effort, hiring research teams focused on 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 launch pad 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 Residence program was released this year, with a total of five spots available, and more will be added in the future.
This collaboration was first announced last December when VTCRC received a government grant to build a shared lab space to help startups that need access to equipment but cannot afford the cost of setting up their own lab.
The 25-unit lab space will function as a co-working facility with slots for rent. Studies have found that a lack of accessible laboratory facilities is hampering growth for early stage companies in the region.
According to funding forecasts, the entire project should contribute to the creation of 125 jobs with an average annual salary of 80,000 US dollars in the first five years.
The opening of the shared laboratory space is planned for late 2022 or early 2023. And its details are set to create a blueprint for a similar but larger facility due to arrive in Roanoke in 2024.
This 30,000-square-foot project will build on work begun in Blacksburg, officials said. The yet-to-be-named facility, which will also house the Innovation Studio, secured $15.7 million in federal support from the Commonwealth budget earlier this year.
Roanoke City is on board to contribute an additional $1.96 million towards program costs. Carilion is another partner and owner of the building where the project is set to open.
The unifying mission behind this multi-pronged effort is to make the region a magnet for high-demand biotechnology and life sciences fields, officials said. The growing sector employs over 26,500 people in well-paying jobs nationwide and contributes $8 billion to Virginia’s economy.
Since its inception in 2010, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute alone has grown to more than 550 employees and approximately $40 million in annual grants. In the last year alone, the value of the scholarships has increased by 20%.
Staff at the facility, which unveiled a major expansion in 2021, conduct leading-edge research in areas including brain function, cancer cells, heart disease and memory. The jobs created pay an average full-time salary of about $90,900 — about twice the median Roanoke household income.
Advances in research have led to several company spin-offs, with the help of groups like RAMP, said Irvin, associate vice president of the Fralin Institute.
The goal is to increase that number and create an environment that allows startups to stay here in the region, 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 a skilled workforce.
Virginia Western Community College is preparing to launch a new two-year undergraduate program specifically for biotechnology next fall. The curriculum offers almost double the laboratory experience of an existing certificate program offered as a complement to other degrees.
Students in the new courses can either transfer to a four-year institution after graduation or take professional exams to enter the workforce directly. The idea is to strengthen 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. A poll last spring found that half of Virginians didn’t even know that federally funded biotech research had been going on in the state for years.
White repeated something similar about what she hears from students. Many are unaware of the variety of jobs, research programs, and career paths that can be explored.
“We’re so much in this world that we forget there’s an entire population out there that doesn’t realize that,” White said, adding VWCC is working 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 between researchers, organizers said. The event, held September 13-15, featured a range of free and open programs to learn about local initiatives, explore lab spaces, network at Social Hour or hear expert talks on industry sectors.
This year marked the second annual iteration of the gathering.
In the welcoming remarks, Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center CEO Brett Malone said he felt the mix of partners and resources the two valleys bring is building into something unique in the industry.
“I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years,” he said of his background in the field. “And that feels like lightning in a bottle. This group that has come together regionally feels unique to me. We create some really cool things.”