Virginia Commonwealth University is emerging as a player in two major state economic development initiatives aimed at collaborative research among major colleges and universities to produce technologies that could save lives and generate new jobs.
VCU has reached agreement with Inova Health Systems to hire high-level research faculty who would work both for the university and the Genomics & Bioinformatics Research Institute soon under construction — with $20 million in state support — at the Inova Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax County. The university’s financial contribution to recruiting “eminent scholars” for the project remains under negotiation.
The project would use research in the genetic links to addiction to inform and improve treatment of people recovering from opioid overdoses, which have become epidemic in Virginia and across the country.
“The more we can collaborate on that, the more we can have an impact on the epidemic,” said Dr. Gerry Moeller, VCU division chair of addiction psychiatry and director of VCU’s Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research and of the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies.
VCU already is working on similar research with Inova, Virginia Tech and Invidior Inc., a global specialty pharmaceutical company, under a $500,000 Virginia Catalyst grant administered by the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corp. The nonprofit corporation is funded by the state and consortium of research universities.
“I find VCU very open to collaboration,” said Todd Stottlemyer, CEO of the Inova Center for Personalized Health and a member of the board for GO Virginia, a corporate-led state economic development initiative that requires collaboration among local governments.
The Inova genomics institute itself is a collaboration among the Northern Virginia health system, the University of Virginia and George Mason University — two higher education institutions that also have submitted proposals to recruit joint faculty for research at the new facility.
“I remain optimistic that once it’s built, that it won’t be just U.Va., GMU and VCU — it will include Virginia Tech and others,” Stottlemyer said.
But VCU’s involvement could hasten the release of $8 million in state funds for the project that had been held up last year because of concern that too few research institutions were involved.
“I was very, very pleased that VCU is stepping to the plate,” said House Appropriations Committee director Robert Vaughn, a member of the Virginia Research Investment Committee that is administering state funds reserved in the budget for the Inova project.
‘Major role’ in CyberX
VCU also is preparing to participate in a new state initiative in the budget Gov. Ralph Northam signed last month that would contribute $20 million in the next fiscal year for the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, or CyberX, which Virginia Tech would lead at a new facility in Tysons Corner.
The CyberX program envisions the Northern Virginia center as the hub of a state research network that would extend spokes to other colleges and universities to foster technological innovation and education of skilled workers in cybersecurity, data analytics, unmanned systems and other research areas with strong commercial potential.
“VCU will have a very major role in that,” said Dr. Barbara D. Boyan, dean of the VCU College of Engineering and the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. endowed chair. “We’re moving to be one of the universities” in the CyberX network.
“These people are all going to come together and the state will benefit,” predicted Boyan, a biochemist who specializes in cell and tissue engineering.
Boyan also is chair of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, based in Colonial Heights. It received two matching grants of $100,000 each last month from the Center for Innovative Technology to help commercialize research led by two VCU engineering professors.
One, led by Thomas D. Roper, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Sciences Engineering, is developing a system of secure automated refrigeration units to store temperature-sensitive medications in portable compartments for quick access by hospital nursing staff.
The other, led by Dayanjan S. Wijesinghe, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, is mass spectrometry technology to quickly identify medications in patients’ bloodstreams in hospital emergency departments to avoid dangerous side effects.
The Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund, administered by CIT at its headquarters in Herndon, also issued a $100,000 grant to Boyan to further develop commercial uses for a “click hydrogel” she pioneered previously at Georgia Tech to close the cranial sutures in infant skulls at a measured rate that allows their brains to grow.
She owns two companies — HydroBio Technology and SpherIngenics Inc. — to develop other commercial applications for people with head injuries, whether caused by automobile accidents or combat.
VCU also is taking advantage of another collaborative state initiative to spur innovation and create jobs — GO Virginia. The state-backed, regionally based program granted $500,000 this year to VCU to commercialize research of technology developed to quickly and cheaply manufacture generic drugs needed around the world.
“It’s about reinventing how drugs are produced in the 21st century,” said B. Frank Gupton, Floyd D. Gottwald Jr. chaired professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering. “There really isn’t anybody else in the U.S. doing what we’re doing in this area.”
Gupton’s work at Bio-Tech 8 in the VA Bio+Tech Park in downtown Richmond already is paying commercial dividends. Ampac Fine Chemicals, a California-based pharmaceutical manufacturer with a location in Petersburg, and Merck, a New Jersey pharmaceutical company with an operation in Elkton in Rockingham County, are both working with VCU to develop a skilled workforce.
“Both of these companies have reached out to us because they really like the way we are training our students for real-world experience,” he said.
Several companies also are preparing to “co-locate” with the VCU operation at the Bio+Tech Park to take advantage of the technology it is producing.
“A whole industry is growing up around him,” Boyan said of Gupton.
Medicines for All Institute
Gupton’s work has been boosted by nearly $40 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish the Medicines for All Institute at VCU to engineer drug manufacturing to meet critical needs around the world. VCU also has invested more than $10 million in the enterprise.
The state’s role has been more than financial. Gupton said then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe accompanied him in his initial meeting with the Gates Foundation. “It’s not so much the money — it’s the support the state has given us,” he said.
For Boyan, GO Virginia is an essential partner to the Virginia Research Investment Committee in creating the economic conditions for taking technology research into commercial markets so it remains in Virginia, rather than benefiting companies out of state.
“GO Virginia is really about infrastructure in the community,” the engineering dean said. “VRIC is infrastructure in the university. You can’t do one without the other.”
VCU also is involved in a collaborative partnership among businesses, universities and governments in a region that extends from Baltimore through Washington and its suburbs to Richmond.
The Greater Washington Partnership, formed last year to spark economic transformation of what it calls a “super-region,” recently launched an alliance of university and business leaders called Capital Co-LAB. Its goals are to develop a skilled workforce for Amazon and other technology-based companies, as well as foster technological research and enhance the region’s image as a hub for innovation.
Co-LAB’s partners include VCU, the University of Richmond, U.Va. and Virginia Tech, as well as such companies as Capital One and Northrop Grumman Corp. Together with universities and companies from elsewhere in the region, they plan to develop regionwide credentials for digital technology education to improve students’ opportunities for skilled jobs in businesses struggling to fill them.
“Participating in the Capital Co-LAB was natural for us given our presence in the region and how central technology is to our strategy as a business,” said George Brady, chief technology officer at Capital One.
“We have hired thousands of engineers, designers, data scientists and machine learning experts at Capital One, and we want to ensure that we are supporting an environment where their talent, creativity and innovation can flourish,” Brady said in a written statement.
VCU President Michael Rao said the university would “leverage its strengths as a leader in the Richmond region’s talent pipeline and the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem to advance the collaborative’s initiatives.”
The university’s decision to join the Genomics & Bioinformatics Research Institute at Inova came a year after VRIC decided to withhold $8 million in state funds from the recruitment effort because of concerns that too few institutions were involved.
Vision for 2020
“VCU is just another significant step in the collaboration chain,” Vaughn said at the Appropriations Committee. “They and others are seeing that this is the desire of the General Assembly and the governor.”
The state’s promised share of $8 million for recruiting faculty is more than matched by Inova and U.Va., each of which is contributing $16 million, and George Mason, which is committing $4 million. The institute is still “working through” VCU’s contribution, said Stottlemyer, who expects to return to VRIC in the fall to report on the project’s progress.
Inova and U.Va. already are contributing more than $52 million each to construction of the institute, which is estimated to cost $125.2 million. George Mason is contributing $1 million. The institute is expected to open in early 2020.
“It’s coming together very nicely,” Stottlemyer said.