Danville institute continues mission with new executive director
Longtime businessman Mark Gignac has had ties to the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Danville since its beginning more than a decade ago. Now he is the organization’s new executive director.
“I actually was on the original site selection committee,” Gignac says of the institute, which opened in 2004. From the start, its goal has been to stimulate economic development in Southern Virginia following the loss of thousands of jobs in the textile and tobacco industries.
Gignac became the leader of the institute Nov. 1 after serving as its interim executive director since the retirement of Jerry Gwaltney on July 31. IALR serves the cities of Martinsville and Danville and the counties of Patrick, Franklin, Henry, Pittsylvania, Halifax and Mecklenburg.
Before becoming interim executive director, Gignac was IALR’s research director for a year.
During his three-decade business career, Gignac founded, owned and operated several companies in the region, including Engineering Design & Sales Inc., Chartwell Homes LLC and Dan River Plants LLC. He also is a former member of Danville City Council.
“My desire is [to] continue to serve the community, and IALR is the perfect venue for that to happen,” he says.
“I just want this organization to grow and be stronger to accomplish that task of economic development.”
To accomplish its mission, IALR partially funds and houses the offices of the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance, which seeks to retain and attract businesses to the region. IALR also has workforce development programs, such as the Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining, where Danville Community College students train for modern machining careers.
Gignac says that, since July 2016, three international manufacturing companies either have located in the area or have announced plans to do so because they want access to its trained workforce. “Danville wants to be known, and we’re gaining this recognition, as an advanced-machining talent pool,” Gignac says.
The institute also is a hub for research, currently focusing on the areas of plant sciences, analytical chemistry, precision agriculture and advanced materials. IALR has 36 full-time employees, including 10 on the research staff.
The institute plans to expand its research arm early next year with the addition of the Phytobiome Research Center. The center would study the use of beneficial bacteria that could be used to increase crop yields and fight disease in plants.
IALR also is looking into adding a Center for Manufacturing Advancement, a space for companies to test and improve processes and showcase emerging technologies and new products. “It’s just in an exploratory stage now, but that is another initiative that we’re putting quite a bit of time into,” he says.