The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center is preparing to open a scientific laboratory to relieve space constraints that force some entrepreneurs to build inventions in their homes and generally hinder growth.
The business park designed the facility to cater to people such as Mickey Cowden, a roboticist and software engineer with an electronics work bench in his basement. A vent originally for a laundry dryer takes out the fumes, though imperfectly.
“I still get a headache from doing soldering if I do it too long,” the owner of Cowden Technologies said.
A consulting firm sees the life sciences market and related industries as an underdeveloped business opportunity in the Roanoke-Blacksburg region, one that will require construction of plentiful, low-cost laboratory space. Brought in to assess the industries’ viability, the firm responded with a resounding yes when it issued its final report in 2021.
Once the Blacksburg lab and another planned in Roanoke open, they will deliver “immense cost savings” to tenant businesses, according to the consultant, Maryland-based Facility Logix.
A coalition of organizations seeking to foster economic growth set out to create two new laboratories after officials recognized that privately owned lab space is for the most part leased or otherwise spoken for all across the region, officials said.
Although lab space exists in academic settings where essential research takes place, “You can’t run your startup in a university lab,” said Brett Malone, president and CEO of the university research center.
The state’s economic growth initiative GO Virginia paid slightly more than half of the $1.1 million cost of the Blacksburg venue, while the rest came from the research center, a for-profit, private subsidiary of the Virginia Tech Foundation. Not a state entity, the research park has catered to business creation in autonomous technology, biotech, software, cybertech, aerospace and defense during its nearly 40-year existence.
The lab is located at 2200 Kraft Drive and goes by the name COgro Labs.
“We expect to fill this up pretty quickly,” Malone said at an open house March 30. He said the facility is open to “anyone.”
The life sciences — the study of humans, plants, and animals — underpin such industries as pharmaceuticals and biomedicine and a host of related fields such as medical devices, agricultural bioscience, diagnostics, health-informatics and machine learning, according to the feasibility study prepared for the laboratory project. Known as the Multi-tenant Lab Facility Feasibility Study, the report was issued in September 2021.
The facility contains both wet lab benches for the development of technology that uses microorganisms and chemicals. There is also dry lab space for activities such as computing. Should he rent a bench, the dry-lab side of the house is where Cowden would solder, situated at a work bench beneath an exhaust snorkel connected to filtration in the air management system.
Just as an office coworking center provides tenants with business machines such as a copier, the new Blacksburg lab is equipped with ultra-low temperature storage compartments, a biological safety cabinet, fume hood, autoclave, centrifuge, shakers, mixers and pipettors. Each bench comes with a lockable storage cabinet at the bench and a locker.
Applications from interested parties are coming in, according to lab manager Tina Taylor, who said she believes the lab will open in May. The introductory rate is $700 monthly for a bench, a charge that will increase “a little” later on, she said. The rent includes utilities, use of specialized equipment, personal protective gear and access to the shared work space in an office suite across the hall that’s part of the COgro program, she said.
Taylor, a health sciences researcher with prior laboratory management experience, will staff the facility, assist with the operation of equipment and ensure safety and compliance, Malone said.
The Blacksburg facility is seen in part as a prototype from which a larger laboratory planned in Roanoke will be designed. While the Blacksburg lab has 18 benches in 2,900 square feet of space, the future Roanoke laboratory is planned within a 40,000-square-foot building on South Jefferson Street.
Virginia officials green-lighted the Roanoke facility with a $15.7 million grant made public in mid-February. The city of Roanoke will contribute $1.9 million of its federal pandemic relief funds.
The overall project is expected to generate 125 jobs with an average salary of $80,000 per year. The state will get its money back in fewer than five years, officials said.
Renting a little space in a professional laboratory with air management would help Cowden as he develops a drone docking station with charging, data and payload-replenishment features for agricultural use. He said he hopes to apply for a lab bench in six months, depending on the availability of cash.
His Fairlawn home sits 13 miles from the Blacksburg research center, where he already rents an office in COgro.
Cowden’s wife, Amy VanKirk, an associate professor of dance at Radford University, took the new lab tour.
“It all seems a little safer. I don’t have these soldering fumes with a 9-month-old in the house,” she said.
The facility consultant remarked in its report that the public does not see an evolution toward technology industry as having value. “The general population remains dedicated to traditional manufacturing and do not necessarily realize the importance of technical and life science careers,” said the report.
But traditional manufacturing and demand for workers with traditional manufacturing skills “are in decline nationwide, as manufacturing has become more capital intensive and less labor intensive,” the report said. Communities making a shift to technology-based employment, as the laboratory is designed to support, will provide training in science, technology, engineering and math as early as elementary school and assist those who can start businesses with a diverse “innovation ecosystem.”
This region’s life sciences and related companies — present and future — benefit from a regional ecosystem with several strengths that include 25 higher education institutions; multiple health systems; a variety of business-development competitions, incubators and accelerators; and a wide menu of nonprofit economic development organizations. Local and state government agencies are pro-business and provide funding.
The 2021 report called private venture capital programs in this area weak, but that issue has received attention. The consultant called the number of life sciences companies “low.” That has number has grown, by one estimate, to 40 to 50 entities in the 19 months that have passed since the report came out.
New this year, Johnson & Johnson inducted three local life sciences companies into its biotech accelerator and could select two more. The company’s assistance complements the new laboratory space to further strengthen the ecosystem, officials said.
“You should never not feel supported,” said Lisa Garcia, who directs the Roanoke-based business accelerator RAMP.
As originally published in The Roanoke Times