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Tech projects have big effect on local economy

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Jon Greene stands on the airstrip at Kentland Farms, a
drone testing site. Photo by Chelsey Allder, courtesy VirginiaTech

Whether it is drone testing, neuroscience research, a futuristic kitchen or football, Virginia Tech draws an international eye to the New River-Roanoke Valley region. 

Tech’s drone testing site, one of six selected nationwide by the Federal Aviation Administration, can fly up to 25 research drones at a time, says  Jon Greene, the acting associate director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

The 31,000-student university, which manages $513 million in research, not only is central to the New River Valley, it has a substantial Roanoke presence in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute. 

A new universitywide neuroscience program will be directed by Harald Sontheimer, an expert on the biology of glial brain cells. He and his 18-person lab have been recruited from the University of Alabama to the Roanoke research institute where he will oversee a new Glial Biology in Health, Disease and Cancer Center. Sontheimer’s research already has expanded the treatment of glioblastoma, the deadliest and most common primary brain tumor in humans.

Recognizing the expansion of interest in environment and ecology in the economy, the university has added a new bachelor’s degree in Water: Resources, Policy and Management, the first of its kind in the United States. The program is in reaction to an anticipated 19 percent job growth in positions related to water.

“The timing of this new program could not be better, nor more urgent,” said Brian Richter, director of global freshwater strategies for The Nature Conservancy. “Many corporations are now awakening to the water risks in their business operations and supply chains, and they are looking for help.”

In May, Tech’s futuristic kitchen, FutureHAUS, was part of the “Living Room of the Future” featured exhibit of the American Institute of Architects Convention in Atlanta. The  FutureHAUS concept involves complete rooms —  including kitchens and bathrooms — built as “cartridges” in factories and shipped to a construction site.  

The university extends into the daily economy through its more than 8,000 employees. It also was the main benefactor that refurbished Hotel Roanoke into the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center. The center contributes some $39 million annually to the Roanoke Valley economy, a total of $600 million since the hotel’s reopening in 1995, notes Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations.




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