When the startup biotechnology company Green Biologics LLC was looking for a larger laboratory space last year, it found a natural home in the Virginia Bio+Tech Park in downtown Richmond.
Green Biologics develops bio-based specialty chemicals for its customers, which are companies that make paints, inks and food, fragrance and home fuel products.
The company moved its local applications development team from an office and lab in Ashland to the Bio+Tech Park, where it joined other startup biotech firms in the park’s business incubator, in its Biotech 1 building on East Leigh Street. The company first used a shared laboratory but soon moved to its own lab in the incubator, where it doubled the size of its Richmond team from two to four people, hiring from Virginia universities.
“It’s been a good place for us,” said Richard Weber, Green Biologics’ president and chief commercial officer. The company, which is based in the United Kingdom, employs about 90 people and has a manufacturing plant in Minnesota and a sales team based in Cleveland.
“We are not just renting space,” Weber said of the Bio+Tech Park. “They [the park] are really helping us do things that are helpful to our overall business plan. They have helped us with procurement of some equipment. For us, it is great space to do technical work, and also a great place to bring customers. There is also the community aspect of it. Our scientists like working alongside other scientists.”
As the company continues to grow, it could employ as many as 15 people on its Richmond team.
“If things continue as planned, at some point we will outgrow this space as well,” Weber said.
The Bio+Tech Park, which formally opened in January 1996 as the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, has “graduated” a number of other companies that eventually outgrew the park, such as medical products company Kaléo and microbe-resistant materials maker Cupron.
Under plans currently in the works, by 2021 the park will have a new space that can accommodate the growth of such companies as Green Biologics as they rise beyond the startup stage.
Activation Capital, a nonprofit associated with the Bio+Tech Park that works to support innovation and entrepreneurs in the Richmond region, is developing plans for a new building in the park designed to house not only budding biotech companies but also other high-tech startups.
At the same time, the park’s leadership board has initiated a search for a new president and CEO to head its strategic work going forward.
The building plan calls for a new facility on East Leigh Street between North Seventh and North Eighth streets on what is now a 2-acre parking lot for the Bio+Tech Park, which stretches over a 34-acre campus that houses about 70 businesses, nonprofits, government laboratories and research institutes, and administrative functions of Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health.
Most details of the building project are still being worked out by park officials, including the building’s size and how it will be financed. (The Virginia Bio+Tech Partnership Authority board, a political subdivision of the state government, could issue bonds, for instance.)
Carrie Roth, president and CEO of Activation Capital and the Virginia Bio+Tech Park, said the building will have multiple floors.
The park’s current business incubator has a waiting list for wet lab space, so the new building would offer more lab space for biotech firms as well as workspaces designed for other types of tech businesses. The purpose of the new building would be to support the region’s entrepreneurial economy by providing a “step-up space,” where startups can grow beyond their initial stages, Roth said.
“It will amplify, not duplicate, what we already have,” Roth said. “It will support programming, people and funding, and provide a community space for events that are larger than 100 people.”
Roth said the park is in good position to undertake a building project because its assets and operating income have been growing. She said its cash assets have doubled in value in the past five years to about $20 million.
Members of the Bio+Tech Partnership Authority board and the Activation Capital board see the building project, along with a revamped leadership structure for the park, as part of a strategic vision to advance the park beyond being a provider of real estate to becoming a more proactive force in the regional economy.
About 2,400 people work for the various businesses and organizations in the park, but it has yet to fully realize its potential as an economic engine, those leaders said.
Major offices and laboratories in the park include Altria Group Inc.’s Center for Research and Technology. The park also is home to the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services and the United Network for Organ Sharing, the organization that coordinates U.S. organ donors and transplants and which opened its headquarters in the park in 2002.
“The Bio+Tech Park has to become more than a place,” said Michael Rao, president of VCU and ex-officio chairman of the Bio+Tech Partnership Authority board.
“It really has to become an innovation system that fosters bringing people together around this idea that entrepreneurship is how the next Richmond will be built,” he said.
Rao said he wants to see the park develop more as a place where students and faculty from VCU can start ventures and grow them while keeping them in the Richmond region.
The park “has been beneficial” to the local economy, said Kim Scheeler, president and CEO of ChamberRVA.
“I think there is definitely more that could be done,” Scheeler said. “The connection to VCU and using it as a place to launch some startups that come out of the research at VCU is something that could be really beneficial. I don’t know that we have taken advantage of it enough in the past.”
“We have an opportunity to build on what we already have, and look at entrepreneurship and innovation in the entire region,” said Mary Doswell, a retired executive with Dominion Energy who is founder of Doswell Strategic Consulting Services and vice chair of the park’s authority board.
The new building will be owned by Activation Capital, which received some proceeds from the sale of the Biotech 8 building.
The 262,000-square-foot building at 737 N. Fifth St., which had been headquarters for bankrupt blood testing lab Health Diagnostic Laboratory, sold for $92 million. The building was partially owned by the biotech park, the HDL bankruptcy estate and Henrico County-based Lingerfelt CommonWealth Partners.
Previously known as the Innovation Council of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park, it rebranded in April 2017 with Activation Capital as its new name and a mission of identifying gaps in resources available to entrepreneurs, and leading efforts to find the financial support for the entrepreneurial community.
With proceeds from the sale of that building, Activation Capital set up a $5 million fund from which it provides grants to support programs for entrepreneurs in the region.
So far, Activation Capital has provided grants for such organizations as the business accelerator Lighthouse Labs and the business incubator Startup Virginia, both of which provide mentoring and other support for startup companies.
Roth said she envisions the new building as a component of the Navy Hill development, a planned mixed-use development that would replace the Richmond Coliseum. Plans call for a residential development to be built on East Leigh Street across from the planned Activation Capital building. Roth believes that would be ideal housing for the park’s entrepreneurs and scientists.
Working collaboratively with other local organizations such as Lighthouse Labs and Startup Virginia, Bio+Tech Park leaders also see the new building as part of an effort to help fill some gaps in local support for entrepreneurs that can stymie startup companies.
“We have a significant challenge in our region of keeping companies here in the five- to seven-year range,” Roth said. “We have a drop-off there. That is typically when companies need to move to their next stage of growth, and that is what we hope to keep and support here.”
With its proximity to Richmond International Airport, the new building would offer space where companies could host meetings with potential investors, Roth said.
Eric Edwards, the co-founder of the Richmond-based pharmaceuticals and medical products company Kaléo and a member of the park’s authority board, said he wants the new building and the park to be an anchor for a “founder friendly” environment where entrepreneurs can get the resources to avoid some of the pitfalls he and brother Evan faced as they built their company. One of the biggest challenges was getting access to the capital needed to grow.
Kaléo, which was founded as Intelliject in 2003, spent several years in the park’s business incubator.
“We started out in a cubicle,” Edwards recalled.
Eventually, the company outgrew the park. It now has about 350 employees and is based in an office in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom.
“The park was a place for us, but it wasn’t a place that really allowed entrepreneurs and startups to move along the whole process of incubation, acceleration and growth through step-up space,” Edwards said.
“My entire agenda since first getting on the [Bio+Tech Park] board has been to create a culture whereby more Kaléos can be built without the challenges that we went through when we were trying to access capital and trying to access programs that support entrepreneurs.”