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Sen. Mark Warner Convenes Biotech Leaders in Roanoke and New River Valleys

A rare glimpse of the biotechnology ecosystem in the region occurred this week when U.S. Sen. Mark Warner convened many of its tech sector leaders at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

The Research, Innovation, and Economic Development in Biotech event highlighted progress and potential  as well as Virginia’s proposed research triangle, which primarily includes Virginia Tech and the research institute, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

“To have Sen. Warner here, and this group of stakeholders together, is a special day for us to be able to share our common goals and interests,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the research institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “With such a well-informed, influential, and supportive person as a Sen. Warner sharing a dialogue with us, I think great things are going to come out of this meeting.”

“It was a wonderful opportunity to get all of our partners together across these sectors that all support the biotechnology enterprise in the region. And to have Sen. Warner convene us was a very nice twist in the sense that he has a lot of insights at the federal level and certainly in Virginia,” Sands said. “Having all these people who represent different parts of the ecosystem on hand to hear the same messages really knits everyone together. It was fantastic.”

As the chairman of the U.S. Senate’s intelligence committee, Warner sees the kind of research going on at Virginia Tech with partners at Carilion Clinic and the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C., as potentially fitting into the national security envelope.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands (at right) introduced the event and welcomed U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s leadership and support for advancing biotechnology in Virginia. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

“National security is no longer simply who has the most tanks and guns and ships and plans, it’s who’s going to dominate in a variety of technology domains [such as] synthetic biology, bio-manufacturing, and the next generation of biotech,” Warner said. “In so many ways, what is happening at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and at the medical school is really cutting edge. The next generation of bio is something I’d love to be an advocate for.”

“What we’re building together is attracting the brightest minds in health care, technology, and research who are putting their ideas to work here,” said Carilion Clinic CEO Nancy Agee. “It’s exciting to think about the cures, therapies, and medications of tomorrow that will be developed here and benefit patients everywhere.”

The roundtable included more than two dozen biotech, health care, economic, and academic leaders from the region and the state, including Joe Benevento, Virginia’s deputy secretary of commerce and trade and interim CEO of the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corp., and Heywood Fralin, Roanoke businessman, economic development proponent and the namesake benefactor of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Fralin noted that the broad region of the Roanoke and New River valleys and the area around Martinsville and Danville to the south was the fastest growing economically in the last year, according to Virginia data.

Friedlander cited the research institute’s growth from its opening 14 years ago to more than 40 faculty-led research teams this year. The research institute, with over 500 employees and students, holds more than $220 million in current active outside funding. Its funding per faculty member rivals some of the country’s larger and more established research centers. He also noted the globally rich talent pool that the research institute draws upon is a major contributor to its success and that is at least party attributable to the welcoming environment provided by the Roanoke community, consistent with Warner’s assessment of the impact on our nation’s global competitiveness.

A panel discussion featured Erin Burcham, president of Verge Alliance and executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council; Tony Seupaul, executive vice president and chief physician executive at Carilion Clinic; Sarah Snider, CEO and co-founder of BEAM Diagnostics, a company founded from research at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute that develops technology to support behavioral health care; and Rob Gourdie, a research institute professor and founder of the Tiny Cargo Co., which is developing a therapeutic drug delivery system.

Moderated by Virginia Tech Associate Vice President for Innovation and Partnerships Brandy Salmon, panelists extolled the support from Virginia Tech, the research institute, state and local governments, and RAMP, Roanoke’s start-up business accelerator program. Multiple attendees also noted that Roanoke’s natural beauty, outdoor amenities, and vibrant arts scene are valuable assets for drawing the people needed to grow the biotech sector.

By Matt Chittum

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