Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Courtesy of the institute.

I moved to the Roanoke Valley in 1982. That was also when the place started going downhill.

Correlation is not causation, or so I’m told. The biggest event in 1982 was not my arrival but the railroad’s departure.

It was in 1982 that the Norfolk & Western Railway – the company that essentially built and defined Roanoke – merged with the Southern Railway to become Norfolk Southern and the company headquarters moved to Norfolk. (Like a peripatetic sports team, the railroad headquarters is now on the way to Atlanta.)

Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, Roanoke seemed to go through a long identity crisis. The city had grown up as a railroad town, so if the railroad headquarters wasn’t there anymore, what was it? This civic depression only got worse as other headquarters left, too. Dominion Bank got gobbled up by Charlotte’s First Union Bank (which in turn was subsumed by Wachovia and then eventually Wells Fargo). The top brass at Advance Auto, another longtime Roanoke headquarters, decamped first for Minneapolis and then eventually Raleigh. It wasn’t just corporate headquarters that left, either. Old-line manufacturers disappeared, too.

Roanoke’s story was not unique. The same thing was happening all over the country, just in different ways in different places. Lynchburg is no longer a shoe capital. Danville and Martinsville are no longer textile towns. The coalfields may not even be the coalfields anymore, given how far coal has fallen. But that company was of little comfort.

Now let’s fast forward to today – or, at least, last week. What once was an industrial brownfield on the edge of downtown Roanoke is now home to a gleaming high-rise campus that houses both a medical school (the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine) and a research institute (the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC). Last week that institute hosted a series of presentations that amounted to a pep rally for Roanoke’s new economy.

The Roanoke of 2022 is not the Roanoke of 1982, not economically and not psychologically, either.

When The Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust and Cynthia and Heywood Fralin gave $50 million to Virginia Tech in 2018 – the donation that prompted Tech to bestow the Fralin name on the research institute – I wrote that this was “the Roanoke Valley’s Amazon.”

A more apt description might be to say that this is the beginning of the Roanoke Valley’s own Research Triangle (keep in mind that it took decades for the real Research Triangle to become the Research Triangle).

Roanoke today no longer asks, plaintively, what kind of city it is. Former city manager Chris Morrill liked to talk about how Roanoke had evolved from “a train town to a brain town,” a nice play on the institute’s focus on brain research. He also suggested that the city’s minor league hockey team be named the Brain Freeze, with a brain mascot skating around the ice. The team’s owners went with a more retro railroad theme – the Rail Yard Dawgs – but Morrill was onto something.

“If the railroad was our past, research is undoubtedly our future,” Carilion president and CEO Nancy Howell Agee told a roomful of business and education leaders. (This is as good a time as any to make our customary disclosure: Carilion and Fralin are some of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions. You can read our policy and full list of donors. You can also become one of those donors and have no say, as well.) She pointed to a “meteoric increase in research” in Roanoke over the past few years.

The money statistic: Roanoke now has more research spending taking place here than in all 15 of its official peer cities put together. In 2019, Roanoke had $31.5 million compared to $29.2 million for all the others, according to the National Science Foundation.By 2021, that figure was up to $140 million. Now it’s said to be more than $180 million, with 37 different research teams that include more than 400 investigators and students. (Roanoke’s official peer cities are Lynchburg and Richmond along with Asheville, North Carolina; Bend, Oregon; Erie, Pennsylvania; Evansville, Indiana; Greensville, South Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; Lowell, Massachusetts; Savannah, Georgia; Wichita Falls, Texas and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That’s a list that includes cities, such as Knoxville and Richmond, with some pretty major universities.)

More statistics: Three years ago, Agee said, there were 23 clinical trials taking place in Roanoke. Now there are 130.

Fralin, the health care executive whose family name is on the institute, rattled off some more: The gold standard in the medical research world is what your batting average is for National Institutes of Health grants. The NIH, he said, accepts about 10% to 12% of all the grant applications it receives. Between 2015 and 2020, the success rate for the Fralin institute was about 30% and Virginia Tech’s overall NIH funding grew by 60%. This seems the very definition of small but mighty. None of this would have likely happened without the dynamo of a leader who was hired to run the institute: Michael Friedlander, whose long list of titles now includes vice president for health sciences and technology for Virginia Tech.

So what does all this mean if you’re not a scientist? Well, you might someday be a potential patient who benefits from all this research. But for those who prefer more practical and immediate results, there’s this: The economic goal is to spin off a lot of this research into commercial applications – companies that might start here and grow here. We are now in the fifth year of RAMP, a business accelerator program that is aimed at helping small companies grow. It’s no accident that many of those companies going through RAMP are health-related. Of the seven in the fall 2021 cohort, five had some kind of medical connection. One is specifically connected to research at the Fralin institute. Tiny Cargo says it “produces nanosized drug delivery capsules, called exosomes, that can be used to courier delicate molecules throughout the body.” If Tiny Cargo someday becomes big – or if any of these companies become big – then we can trace those jobs back to the research institute.

Here’s the big picture: The Roanoke Valley is developing a cluster of life sciences businesses, one that it hopes to nurture and grow into something bigger.

In his presentation last week, Fralin talked about how in the ’80s and ’90s “things looked pretty bleak.” The companies that funded many of the high-paying jobs in the valley were gone or going. But some cities across the country were going in the opposite direction, and they tended to be ones with research universities, something that Roanoke didn’t have. “It’s pretty clear to me that high-quality education and research could really, really change the trajectory of the valley,” Fralin said. That was the impetus behind trying to create a medical school and biomedical research institute in Roanoke. The first class for the medical school entered in 2010, so this is all still new, in historical terms. Already, though, the institute has put its name on the global research map, both through its research and by hosting international conferences (another one is coming up later in May). “Now we need to focus on increasing its size,” Fralin told the group. And not just the size of the research institute, but the whole life sciences research ecosystem in Roanoke — something that didn’t even exist a dozen years ago.

We’re presently waiting for the General Assembly to produce a state budget for the next two years – the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate are a loggerheads over the whether to repeal the state tax on food, so it’s hard to agree on spending if you don’t know how much you have to spend in the first place. Both chambers’ budgets, though, include $15.7 million to build lab space in Roanoke. That’s on top of $1.1 million that’s already been raised, along with a partnership commitment from Johnson & Johnson, to build labs in the New River Valley, as well. The city has also put up $1.9 million toward the project. (Megan Schnabel wrote about all that.) Nothing in Richmond is ever certain until the ink has dried on the governor’s signature, but if both versions of the budget include the same amount for that lab space, that sure seems to suggest that funding is likely.

Here’s why that’s important. John Newby, the CEO of the Virginia Biotechnology Association, told the group last week that 98% of all lab space in the “biotech corridor” in neighboring Maryland is already taken. “That’s an opportunity for Virginia,” he said. In other words, the “Field of Dreams” principle seems to apply. If you build it, they will come. “We can attract a lot of companies by investing a modest amount of money in lab space,” he said. (Of course, Maryland isn’t exactly sitting still. The Baltimore Sun reported late last year about how that city is trying to build more space.)

The Roanoke Valley – and the New River Valley – are now very intent on making sure those companies come here. A few weeks ago, Virginia Western Community College announced it’s launching a biotechnology program starting in fall 2023. This is the training that future lab workers will need. In announcing the program, Virginia Western noted that entry-level lab workers typically begin at $24 per hour. I asked earlier what all this research means for people who aren’t scientists. Here’s one answer. This is also the answer to another question. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been fretting about whether the state’s community college system is nimble enough to train students for the jobs we need. Here’s a community college that is moving to train students for jobs that don’t exist yet. To switch sports, this is a Wayne Gretzky moment. The former hockey star is famous for saying “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Virginia Western is skating to where the economic puck is going.

The trains are still coming through Roanoke – just a lot fewer coal trains than there were in 1982 – but the corporate offices are long gone. Even the famous locomotive shop is closed. Roanoke continues to love its railroad heritage, even if the railroad doesn’t love it back. But nobody in Roanoke today is asking what kind of town this is. That’s a big change. Bigger ones may be coming.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.