Biotech industry seeks push forward
With more than $25 million, nearly all taxpayer money, a collaborative partnership of government, business and nonprofit organizations plans to build an accelerator for biotech startups in the Roanoke Valley.
Supporters say the initiative will create 250 jobs through 25 new startups over five years, generating $20 million in annual salaries as 30,000 square feet of former Carilion Clinic pediatrics space (the location has not yet been made public) is transformed into labs, innovation studios and office space.
Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center announced last December it is adding a 2,500-square-foot pilot lab space in Blacksburg. Supporters say that over five years those labs will create 125 jobs, with an average salary of $80,000.
Through cash, property, studies and programming, partners plan to contribute about $10 million to the Roanoke project, and the coalition is seeking about $15.7 million from the state. As of early April, the funding was included in the yet-to-be-passed state budget.
“It’s important to the city of Roanoke, to the Corporate Research Center, to move forward with new life science programs — and for the economy,” says state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.
It’s all about keeping companies and talent in the region, says Erin Burcham, executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council.
“We’ve worked so hard to lay the foundation for biotech from an educational stance,” Burcham says. Virginia Western Community College, Radford University, Virginia Tech and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC are churning out graduates with biotech skills, Burcham says, and some of these alumni are building companies that can’t find the facilities they need to grow.
“This project is all about the next step in the pipeline of our whole biotech ecosystem,” says Brett Malone, president and CEO of Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center. Malone’s three biotech startups depended on subleasing lab space from companies at the CRC.
Malone also worked in Johnson & Johnson’s JLabs, which offers resources and mentoring to health care-related startups and will be part of the projects.
“This gives opportunity for all this amazing talent we’re training in the region to stay,” Burcham says.
It’s vital to diversifying the region’s economy, she adds, and it’s not going to happen without help. “To start up a commercialized biotech company is really expensive. It’s just pretty much impossible unless they have somebody backing them up with a lot of capital.”