Campus tour

Here’s a quick look at university-based projects aimed at developing business and attracting industry.

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The College of William and Mary
For the last year, William & Mary has asked itself an important question:  What’s so great about green? 

A lot, it seems. William & Mary’s collaborative work on the Chesapeake Algae Project (ChAP) could turn algae into a renewable energy source while offering a valuable strategy for removing pollutants from the Chesapeake Bay.

William & Mary’s partners on the public/private project include Williamsburg-based Blackrock Energy Corp., the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland, the University of Arkansas and HydroMentia (a Florida company that works with water-treatment facilities).

Statoil, a Norwegian energy firm, seeded ChAP with an initial $3 million investment.

Unlike other algal research projects, ChAP is testing several species of wild algae, in part to boost the potential bio-fuel’s robustness. Funding for those tests came from a $625,000 grant William & Mary received from the U.S. Department of Energy. “One of the test beds for the project is at Lake Matoaka on the William & Mary campus,” says Leonard Sledge, William & Mary’s director of economic development. “Our faculty and students are heavily involved in research there.”

Scientists suggest algae could be an efficient feedstock — it requires no land and can grow in fresh or salt water — with applications ranging from biodiesel to jet fuel.

George Mason University
George Mason University is attempting to nearly double its annual research grants to $200 million by 2015.

In June, it opened its $50 million Biomedical Research Laboratory. One of 13 biocontainment laboratories being built nationwide with competitive grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the research lab will hire 50 people and is expecting to help attract biotech companies to Northern Virginia.

In addition, GMU recently received a $28.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to prepare Virginia’s K-12 students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The grant will fund the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement, a partnership that George Mason will lead with the participation of 47 Virginia school districts, five universities and SRI International.

George Mason’s university partners are the College of William & Mary, VCU, U.Va., Virginia Tech and James Madison University. George Mason also will receive matching funds from the private sector, which stands to gain from the new partnership. “It boosts the preparation of the labor force,” says Roger Stough, the university’s vice president of research and economic development.

The university also recently received a proposal from ContraFect Corp., a New York biotech firm, to join the Virginia Immunology Center. George Mason heads the center, with collaboration from Virginia Tech, U.Va., VCU and Eastern Virginia Medical School. The proposal, being vetted by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, would bring experience and human capital to develop therapies for treating antibiotic-resistant, infectious diseases.

James Madison University
JMU continues to build on its research partnership with SRI International, which last year opened the Center for Advanced Drug Research near Harrisonburg. SRI employs 36 researchers at the new facility.

They work closely with JMU professors and students “to improve the productivity of the pharmaceutical industry, help the nation respond to bio-threats and develop lifesaving treatments for neglected and orphan diseases — ones which are not necessarily addressed by large pharmaceutical companies,” says John Noftsinger, JMU’s vice provost for research and public service.

Ultimately, SRI expects to bring 100 researchers to the region. “SRI is known around the world for its research, and the fact that it chose the central Shenandoah Valley — home to three institutions of higher education (JMU, Eastern Mennonite University and Bridgewater College) — for its expansion makes a statement that this is a good place for others to build their research facilities,” Noftsinger says. “We hope to obtain a clustering effect for other research-intensive organizations.” 

The university also is in discussions with two Fortune 200 companies to form high-level strategic alliances. While he declines to name the companies, Noftsinger says, “Like SRI, they match up well with our areas for research and programmatic interest and our core organizational values.” (Click here for related story.)

Old Dominonion University
As part of the university’s 75-acre, mixed-use University Village, the Innovation Research Park @ ODU (IRP) occupies land that until 2005 was an example of “blight,” says Tom Osha, ODU’s executive director of economic development.
Now the research park’s two 100,000-square-foot wet/dry lab buildings house university-affiliated research centers and several private companies engaged in collaborative research and commercialization activities.

Among the research park’s standouts is the Frank Reidy Center for Bioelectrics Research, which shows promise for significant spinouts. The field’s practical applications include wound healing, cancer treatment and decontamination. “We’re looking at how we can take some of that research beyond proof-of-concept into faculty- or student-created companies, as a critical step in the development process,” Osha says.

Another IRP success story is ipConfigure, a premier company in the video surveillance and analytics field. The company, founded and led by an ODU graduate, has developed its product portfolio, staff capabilities and market opportunities in part through its proximity to the university’s Business Gateway. The Business Gateway is “a front door through which we can bring businesses for consulting and help with everything from advanced manufacturing and accounting programs to increasing the pace of technology in the market,” Osha says.

University of Virginia
Southwest Virginia might be a long drive from Charlottesville, but the region has strong ties to U.Va. through a longstanding economic partnership. In the past year, for example, the university has helped to secure more than $2.5 million for a variety of programs and services, including a professional development program for history teachers, an in-region engineering degree program and a new scholarship fund for nurse practitioner students who plan to study at U.Va. and return to the region.

In addition, more than 980 teachers there participated in professional development courses designed by the university, and more than 9,800 students were assessed using U.Va. literacy screenings.

These are examples of U.Va.’s efforts to help the region’s leaders transform its economy, which traditionally relied on tobacco, coal and timber. Today, the region’s leaders are looking to information technology, health care, education and energy to steer the region to prosperity.

“Southwest Virginia is a great example of how much a community can accomplish through hard work, clever strategies and sheer determination,” U.Va.’s Pace Lochte says. “Although the challenges are great, people there are passionate about the region and have the solutions. We are glad to be a partner in helping them reach their goals.”

Virginia Commonwealth University
In “The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown thrilled readers with his fanciful suggestion that I.M. Pei’s striking addition to the Louvre hid the Holy Grail. The Pei architectural firm’s design for VCU’s new School of Medicine Education Building is a little more down-to-earth, but it’s still ambitious.

When the building is finished — it will open in 2013 — VCU anticipates it will be able to increase its medical-school class size to 250 students (it’s currently 200) and boost the school’s student body to 1,000 overall. That increase would lift VCU to the sixth largest medical school in the U.S., up from its current ranking at 20th.

But the building is not just about producing new doctors, says Jerome F. Strauss III, dean of the VCU School of Medicine and executive vice president for medical affairs for the VCU Health System. In addition to educating graduate students and offering residencies, the building will allow VCU to expand its recertification programs for practicing doctors.

The impact on the commonwealth’s appeal to business and industry will be significant, Strauss says. “People aren’t going to move into areas without reasonable and affordable health care.”

In July VCU also received a $20 million grant — its largest federal award ever — to join a national consortium of research institutions working to transform lab research into medical treatments. The grant already has allowed VCU to hire 10 doctoral-level scholars and form partnerships with local companies, Strauss says.

Virginia Tech
This fall is proving to be move-in season for Virginia Tech. The university’s research center in Arlington’s Ballston area is nearing completion, and occupants will soon begin moving into the seven-floor, 144,000-square-foot building.

The center is a part of the university’s plan to build partnerships with corporate research entities in Northern Virginia. The center’s primary focus will be on technology, with a special interest in computational technologies, cyber security and network systems.

Meanwhile, VT KnowledgeWorks, the business acceleration center located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, recently hosted the inaugural Global Student Business Concept Challenge. In all, nine countries sent elite student teams to Blacksburg to compete for cash prizes “and to initiate personal global networks through learning and socialization,” says Jim Flowers, VT KnowledgeWorks’ director.

The $25,000 grand prize went to a team of students from Northern Ireland (their product: a wood pellet-fueled patio heater). Teams from Israel and England each received $2,500 as runners-up. The Israeli team presented a noninvasive device that detects breast cancer, and the English team showcased software that allows mobile-telephone payment for taxi rides.

In addition to competing, the teams attended an entrepreneurship workshop and interacted with technology companies.

Flowers wants this competition to become “the Stanley Cup of entrepreneurship competitions,” eventually having regional semifinals.

Further down the road for Virginia Tech: the National Tire Research Center. This public/private partnership between Virginia Tech, General Motors and the Tobacco Commission will create up to 183 new jobs in Southern Virginia by 2020.

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