No ivory towers

Virginia’s universities ramp up efforts to attract and create businesses

  •  | 
Print this page by Doug Childers

Harold “Skip” Garner was so confident last year that bioinformatics was on the verge of a significant gains that he jumped at the chance to become executive dir­­­­­­ector of Virginia Tech’s Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI). He was a nationally-recognized professor of biochemistry and internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The bioinformatics field, which is evolving at lightning speed, melds computer science, statistics and math to aid dramatic advances in biology and medicine. In fact, Garner says, the discipline is on the cusp of “countless breakthroughs” because high-performance computers now can reduce mountains of data to gold nuggets of knowledge.

As he foresaw a year ago, Virginia Tech is ready for the revolution. The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, joint ventures with Carilion Clinic, opened this fall in Roanoke. Garner expects collaboration between VBI and the new institutions to create an intellectual property boom at Virginia Tech.

“I would like to see VBI establish one new spinout a year, whether it comes from our core research or is done by one of the faculty, whether it involves intellectual property from VBI or not,” says Garner, who started several biotech companies before moving to Blacksburg.

VBI has several companies in development, and last year it landed a $27.7 million grant — at that time, the largest one-time federal award in Virginia Tech’s history.

Garner’s entrepreneurial ap­­­­proach to research isn’t unusual today on the campuses of Virginia’s major public universities. Increasingly, they are playing key roles in attracting businesses and creating jobs in the commonwealth. Forget ivory towers. The contemporary university has a lot to offer to the private sector.

It’s not a newfound interest. Many universities in Virginia focus on economic development as a part of their longstanding missions, and the state government has emphasized university-based economic development for years. In the 1990s, for example, the administration of Gov. George Allen asked each of Virginia’s public colleges and universities to appoint an economic development leader.

More recently, the Economic Development and Job Creation Commission appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell urged in a preliminary report greater coordination between industry and state universities in capitalizing on emerging technologies.
That is one of the issues also being considered by a second blue ribbon panel, the Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment. It is trying to boost public/private partnerships and create region-specific economic development strategies for Virginia’s colleges and universities. (The commission’s interim report is due Nov. 30, and it will present its findings to the governor in early December.)

“Companies need to apply innovation to their products and services so they can stay ahead of their competitors,” says Liz Povar, director of business development for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). “One source through which they do that is our universities.”

An innovative collaboration involving Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia was crucial in landing a Rolls-Royce jet engine plant in Prince George County, a project that eventually will create 500 jobs. As part of the deal, the universities agreed to create two research centers with Rolls-Royce.

The Commonwealth Center for Aerospace Propulsion Systems (CCAPS) will focus on fundamental research conducted by faculty and students at the universities. In turn, that research will feed into the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM). It “will work directly with advanced manufacturing firms to reduce costs, speed time to market and remain competitive through new innovations in surface engineering and manufacturing processes,” says Pace Lochte, director of U.Va.’s office of economic development.

CCAPS’ work already has begun. Faculty and students at U.Va. and Virginia Tech are conducting research for Rolls-Royce to improve protective coatings for critical components in jet engines.

The two universities and Rolls-Royce also are designing the CCAM research center, which will occupy a 20-acre site in Prince George. When the center is fully operational, Lochte says, U.Va. and Virginia Tech will “work with dozens of advanced manufacturing member companies from a variety of industries, creating new research and education opportunities for faculty and students.”

Eight U.Va. students and four Virginia Tech students worked as interns with Rolls-Royce this summer, and the company offered permanent positions to 10 graduating engineering students from U.Va. and nine from Virginia Tech.

Over a 10-year period, says John Provo, interim director of Virginia Tech’s office of economic development, CCAM is expected to hire more than 50 permanent, full-time staff, with an additional 75 to 100 part-time researchers, faculty and students using the facility each year. Money for the facility will come in part from construction grants and federal funding for research projects as well as annual fees paid by companies that participate as CCAM members.

Virginia Tech and U.Va. have invited all schools in Virginia with engineering programs to become involved with CCAM, “and a number have expressed interest and followed up,” Lochte says.

As more universities collaborate on economic development projects, the groundbreaking importance of the Rolls-Royce deal will become apparent, says Povar.

“This model — in which the private sector leads with investment and strategic research direction; universities bring collaborative intellect and research commitments; and the commonwealth provides catalyst funding — demonstrates a successful framework for research-based economic development,” she adds. “It’s a national model for manufacturing growth in the U.S., and when it’s done, it will be considered an international model.” 

Over several years, the commonwealth will provide $40 million, matched by private sector funds, to serve as a catalyst to accelerate enhanced research capacity in Virginia’s higher education system that ultimately benefits Rolls-Royce and other global manufacturers.

The Rolls-Royce deal also is a good example of how closely state officials work with Virginia’s universities on economic development projects. Virginia’s universities offer a wide spectrum of research specialties, and the VEDP often matches a prospect with a university based on its research expertise. While Virginia Tech is well positioned in bioinformatics, for instance, Old Dominion University is conducting important research in bioelectrics (which studies how pulsed electromagnetic fields affect biological systems), as well as modeling and simulation.

The key is communication. Many universities offer VEDP officials campus tours where they can meet professors and researchers. The VEDP also conducts an annual survey of the research being done at Virginia’s universities.
Perhaps most important, the agency communicates frequently with the University Based Economic Development committee, which includes economic development officers from Virginia’s public universities. VEDP officials attend the committee’s quarterly meetings, and the agency’s project managers work closely with the committee members.

“Virginia doesn’t have a university system like North Carolina or California, so there is no turnkey switch,” Povar says. “The UBED group performs that service for us on a daily basis, and it works as well as any other state.”
The news isn’t all good. While Virginia’s universities continue to earn grants and pursue ambitious research projects, the recession has slowed economic development. Ultimately, though, the changing economic landscape might drive more businesses to universities.

“As growth comes back, it’s not looking like it did,” Povar says. “Businesses are lean and mean, and they are focused on innovation,” which can be found in university research labs.

Likewise, universities facing austerity measures are likely to find the private sector even more valuable. “Universities will look to strengthen partnerships as government spending declines, and as a way to generate jobs for their students,” says Tom Osha, ODU’s executive director of economic development.

Those partnerships in turn will become the intersections of science, higher education and business that drive economic development. The contemporary university “can become a business nexus because there are a lot of pent-up discoveries and new discoveries to be made,” says Virginia Tech’s Garner. These discoveries will become successful businesses, he says, “after other parts come together — investment, seasoned entrepreneurs and management, and, most importantly, the recognition that [the work] must be done.”  

Campus Tour:  A quick look at university-based projects aimed at developing business and attracting industry

A sampling of research parks in Virginia

Reader Comments

comments powered by Disqus

showhide shortcuts