This building on Roanoke's Jefferson Street will be used for life sciences labs, under a proposal pending in the state budget. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

An estimated 30,000 square feet of shared lab space could go online in Roanoke within a year and a half, assuming that the General Assembly votes Wednesday to approve a compromise budget that includes nearly $16 million in state funding for the project.

The lab initiative, which was announced in December and also includes a smaller lab facility at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, is designed to meet what economic development and technology leaders have for years seen as a critical need: room for researchers and entrepreneurs – especially those in the region’s burgeoning life sciences cluster – to do their work.

[Read our earlier coverage of the labs project here.]

The intended site in Roanoke is a building on South Jefferson Street that’s owned by Carilion Clinic and is centrally located to biomedical and health science research that’s already underway in the city: It’s less than a half-mile from either the campus that houses the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute or the downtown Roanoke home of RAMP, a regional technology business accelerator.

The building, which formerly housed some of Carilion’s pediatric services and is now mostly vacant, must still be fully evaluated for its suitability for the project, Carilion CFO Don Halliwill said Tuesday.

[Full disclosure: Carilion is one of our donors, but donors have no influence on our editorial decisions. Read our policy here.]

Once the General Assembly approves the budget – and the governor signs off on it – the project partners will have $15.7 million to put toward renovating the building, work that is expected to take 16 to 18 months, according to Brett Malone, president and CEO of the Corporate Research Center. The city of Roanoke is contributing another $1.9 million to the project, said Marc Nelson, the city’s director of economic development.

Regional partners in the project include the city, the Corporate Research Center, Carilion, Montgomery County and Verge, a regional technology alliance that brings together the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, the Valleys Innovation Council and RAMP, a regional business accelerator.

Johnson & Johnson’s JLABS initiative is also a partner and will provide industry expertise and, for some participants, intensive mentoring and access to capital.

A lack of flexible lab space was identified as a regional need by a GO Virginia-funded study last year but has been on the radar of the technology community for even longer. Researchers, and the kinds of early-stage companies that tend to spin out of entities like Fralin, need lab space but rarely have the kind of capital to set up their own. When the project was announced, Malone compared the model to a co-working space, but with lab benches instead of desks. Tenants will be able to rent space for a month, or stay longer, he said.

The first phase of the project, funded by a $600,000 GO Virginia grant, will create about 2,500 square feet of shared lab space at the Corporate Research Center. Malone said Tuesday that he anticipates an early fall opening date. 

The Blacksburg space will house researchers and the JLABS initiative, but it also will provide a place to test the design, the pricing and other factors before the partners embark on the larger Roanoke facility, Malone said.

“Essentially, we’re building proof-of-concept labs,” he said. “Will this shared lab model work? What kind of design should we have?”

Project supporters have touted the project as a way both to incubate local research talent and to attract life sciences companies from outside the region. Carilion also sees it as a recruitment draw for physicians and other clinicians, Halliwill said – not a small matter during a time when health care workers are increasingly in demand.

“This is just so exciting in so many ways,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for research and innovation that benefits our patients. It helps us attract and retain talent, it’s going to create jobs. …

“It’s going to create something new for this world, I don’t know what it is yet. How can you not be excited about something like that?”

Megan Schnabel

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