The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg. Courtesy of CRC.

A plan to build tens of thousands of square feet of shared lab space in Blacksburg and Roanoke is being touted as a way to bolster the region’s life science industry – and as an example of how the Roanoke and New River valleys can collaborate to create economic opportunities.

The state board of GO Virginia, a statewide economic development initiative, on Wednesday approved nearly $600,000 for the project. With contributions from Montgomery County, Roanoke and the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, the total budget is just over $1.1 million.

That’s intended to be just the start of an effort that project leaders say will create much-needed research space for startups and contribute to an infrastructure that could attract larger technology companies.

The initial funding will create 2,500 square feet of lab space at the Corporate Research Center. But it also will pay for site design and engineering work for a much larger shared lab facility in Roanoke, potentially 30,000 square feet or more, that would complement existing biomedical and health science research already underway in the city.

Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s JLABS initiative also will be a partner in the project and will provide industry expertise and, for some participants, intensive mentoring and access to investment capital.

A lack of flexible lab space has been an issue in the region for some time, said CRC president and CEO Brett Malone, especially as programs like the RAMP regional accelerator have expanded. A GO Virginia-funded study earlier this year identified the need for such space, and for access to mentoring for biotech entrepreneurs.

Independent researchers and early-stage companies usually don’t have the financial wherewithal to set up their own labs. This model will operate similarly to a co-working space, but with wet and dry labs instead of computer desks. Researchers will be able to rent space for a month, or stay longer term, Malone said.

“It’s not such a gigantic commitment that it causes fear in people wanting to even get started,” he said. “The hardest part is for somebody to say, ‘Yeah, I want to come over there and get set up in a lab and try to take my research to build a company.’ That’s a huge mental commitment and decision, and the last thing we want is the space to be one of those concerns.”

The project’s pitch to GO Virginia estimates that eight to 10 companies could be served at the Blacksburg facility within three years, creating 32 jobs. Within five years, that increases to as many as 17 companies and 138 jobs, it says.

JLABS’ participation is critical, Malone said, because of its experience in creating life science hubs in locations around the world. Globally, JLABS is active at about a dozen sites, according to its website.

Earlier this year, it partnered with Children’s National Hospital to open a hub in Washington, D.C., that the company says will host up to 50 startups in the pharmaceutical, medical device, consumer and health tech fields.

The shared space in Blacksburg will be able to accommodate up to 25 tenants, Malone said. While there won’t be a formal accelerator program, all tenants will have access to JLABS expertise, including sessions on topics like how to file patents and how to approach clinical studies.

Five companies will be selected for inclusion in the official JLABS program, which comes with added benefits like investment dollars and a J&J advisor, he said.

But the goal is broader than just creating an incubator, Malone said.

“It’s not just about the startups,” he said. “It’s also about recruiting companies to come here. When we get the building in Roanoke, we’re going to be able to recruit a mid-size life science company that’s already up and running and looking for a place to come and do work next to Carilion, or do work next to FBRI [Fralin Biomedical Research Institute].”

The Roanoke lab would be able to support work already being done at facilities like Fralin, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and RAMP. According to the project’s GO Virginia pitch, it would be located on Carilion Clinic-owned property “in close proximity” to those entities.

Montgomery County has given $100,000 toward this phase of the labs project. The city of Roanoke, which has contributed $125,000, including $75,000 through its economic development authority, will be asking the General Assembly for funding for the Roanoke building during the upcoming session, said Marc Nelson, Roanoke’s director of economic development. He said he couldn’t provide a dollar amount but said legislators and others they’ve talked to have been “very receptive” to the project.

Life sciences was identified as one of the priority industry clusters in GO Virginia’s Region 2, which covers an area that reaches from Lynchburg to Giles County and Alleghany County to Floyd County.

The shared lab project continues years of efforts to create and expand that cluster, including the launch in 2008 of the medical school and research institute. Eight years later, Tech and Carilion announced they were building on that collaboration to create a health sciences and technology innovation district, which included an expansion of the Roanoke campus and the creation of a new vice president’s position at Tech.

A project like this couldn’t work with the backing of either valley alone, said Erin Burcham, executive director of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council and the incoming president of Verge, a regional technology alliance that brings together the technology council, the Valleys Innovation Council and RAMP. Verge is also a partner in the lab project.

“What Roanoke has to offer is different than what Blacksburg has to offer,” Burcham said. “If we leverage the assets of both valleys we’re so much stronger. This project really shows the strength in the two regions.”

Burcham believes the lab project is a sign of a new kind of regional collaboration. A number of the technology- and economic development-related groups around the two valleys have seen changes at the top recently, she said, and the new leaders are eager to build on the groundwork laid by their predecessors – who were in many cases their mentors.

“There’s a whole new set of leaders … who just are so energized about the foundation that’s been laid,” she said. “We just see that we can take it and run and just kind of push the boundaries of what our region can be.

“In my career, in 15 years, this project has really brought the region together in a different way,” she said. “We’ve put together a really strong coalition of people advocating for this project. The coalition keeps getting bigger. The politics around it have been fairly easy to navigate in the sense that everybody sees this as a way we can diversify our economy and really strengthen our economy.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.