A Virginia Tech think tank is about to open a science lab to address the lack of space that's forcing some entrepreneurs to invent at home and stifling growth.
A nearby business park is made up of people like Mickey Cowden, a robot and software engineer with an underground electronics bench. At first, the dryer vent is defective, but it is used to remove the smoke.
"If I weld for too long, I still get headaches," says the owner of Cowden Technologies.
The consulting firm sees the life sciences and related industries market as an untapped business opportunity in the Roanoke-Blacksburg area that requires the construction of large and low-cost laboratory facilities. The company published its final report in 2021 and answered yes to the industry's feasibility assessment.
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According to Maryland-based consultancy Logix, the planned lease of another lab in Blacksburg and Roanoke will provide "significant cost savings" to companies that lease space.
After officials realized that much of the state's private lab space was being leased or otherwise negotiated, a coalition of organizations seeking to spur economic growth began construction on two new labs.
While the academy has a lab where basic research is conducted, "you can't run your startup in a university lab," said Brett Malone, president and CEO of the university's research center.
The state's GO Virginia Economic Development Initiative paid more than half of the Blacksburg Institute's $1.1 million cost, with the rest coming from the Virginia Tech Foundation, a private nonprofit research center. Although not a government organization, the research park has been responsible for 40 years of building independent businesses in technology, biotechnology, software, cyber, aerospace and defense.
The lab is located at 2200 Kraft Drive and is called COgro Labs.
"We hope to do it very quickly," Malone said at the March 30 open house. He said the institutes are open to "everyone".
Based on feasibility studies, the life sciences—the study of humans, plants, and animals—support industries such as pharmaceuticals, biomedicine, and industries such as medical devices, agricultural biosciences, diagnostics, health informatics, and machine learning. Prepared for a laboratory project. The report, known as the Multi-User Laboratory Feasibility Study, was published in September 2021.
The facility includes laboratory wet benches for developing technologies using microorganisms and chemicals. There is also a dry lab for activities like computing. If a bench is rented, the home's dry lab where Cowden is welded is located on a workbench under an exhaust fan connected to an air handling system filter.
While the office collaboration center provides tenants with work machines such as copiers, the new Blacksburg lab has ultra-low temperature storage rooms, biosafety cabinets, fume hoods, autoclaves, centrifuges, shakers, shakers and mixers. Each bench has a lockable seat and a cabinet for storing pipettes.
Applications are being received from interested parties, according to lab director Tina Taylor, who expects the lab to open in May. The entry fee is $700 per month per seat, he said, adding that fees will increase over time. The rent includes facilities, use of special equipment, personal protective equipment and access to a shared work space in the office in the COgro lobby.
Taylor, a public health researcher with laboratory management experience, will help operate equipment and ensure safety and compliance, Malone said.
The Blacksburg facility appears to be an example of a larger lab planned in part for Roanoke. While the Blacksburg lab will have 18 beds in a 2,900-square-foot space, the future Roanoke lab is planned to be housed in a 40,000-square-foot building on South Jefferson Street.
Virginia officials approved the Roanoke facility in a $15.7 million grant announced in mid-February. The city of Roanoke will contribute $1.9 million to the federal pandemic relief fund.
Overall, the project is expected to create 125 jobs with an average annual salary of $80,000. Officials said the state will return the money in less than five years.
Renting a small space in a professional aerial control laboratory helps Cowden, an unmanned aerial vehicle station for agricultural use capable of delivering payloads, data and payloads. He said he hopes to get a position in the lab as long as the money is not available in six months.
His home is in Fairlawn, 13 miles from the Blacksburg Research Center, and he has already rented an office at COgro.
Cowden's wife, Radford University dance professor Amy Vankirk, toured the new lab.
"Everything seems safe. A house with a 9-month-old baby doesn't have these welding fumes," he said.
The site's consultant said in his report that society does not value the development of the technology industry. "The general public remains committed to traditional manufacturing and does not necessarily recognize the importance of technical and life science jobs," the report said.
Demand for workers with traditional manufacturing skills and traditional manufacturing skills is declining, the report noted. The lab is designed to help tech-driven communities bring STEM education into elementary schools and support an "innovation ecosystem" where they can start their own businesses.
The region's life sciences and related businesses – present and future – will benefit from a strong regional ecosystem that includes 25 higher education institutions. Multiple health systems; Various business development competitions, incubators and accelerators; and a list of non-profit economic development organizations. Local and state governments support and fund businesses.
The 2021 report highlighted the issue, although private venture capital programs in this area were weak. The number of consulting life science companies is "small". Within 19 months of the report's release, this number had grown to 40-50 firms.
This year, Johnson & Johnson has admitted three local life sciences companies to the biotech accelerator and may select two more. The company's support complements the new lab space to strengthen the ecosystem, he said.
"You shouldn't feel like you're missing out," said Lisa Garcia, who runs the RAMP Career Accelerator in Roanoke.