There is no doubt that Virginia is open for business to the life sciences industry. Over the past several years, the state has seen significant growth in pocket ecosystems across the land, particularly in areas like Charlottesville, Richmond, and Blacksburg.
Some of the growth has been fueled by an infusion of federal monies related to the government’s efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, while other growth has been driven by old-fashioned scientific innovation. Across the Old Dominion state, companies are driving research and development of novel therapies and more as they all combine their forces to bolster the life sciences ecosystem.
John Newby, chief executive officer of Virginia Bio, the statewide non-profit trade association for the life science industry, told BioBuzz in a previous interview how the pocket ecosystems are contributing to the overall importance of Virginia in the BioHealth Capital Region. The Richmond area is home to the VA Bio+Tech Park, which has several key employers, including Phlow Corporation Kaleo, FUJIFILM Wako Chemicals, and GlaxoSmithKlein Consumer Healthcare.
In Charlottesville, there is a cluster of 179 firms and organizations in biotech and medical devices. That region, under the stewardship of CvilleBioHub, has thrived and grown over the past several years, despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the group provides mentorship and guidance to more than 75 companies.
Blacksburg is home to The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, as well as the Virginia-Maryland School of Veterinary Medicine. Northern Virginia is home to 1,517 life science companies including Ceres Nanoscience, Serpin Pharma, Vibrent, ATCC, and Aperiomics.
When touting the advantages of Virginia, Newby pointed to the affordable cost of real estate and lab space compared to top hubs in Boston and San Francisco. He also said Virginia’s talent pipeline is “primed by our major research universities at Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and others.”
“While other bioscience clusters are pricing new companies out of the market and are running out of lab space, Virginia is growing, with nearly 50,000 new square feet of lab space coming online in the next two years. And in addition to a robust and supportive bioscience ecosystem, another Virginia asset is the geographic proximity to our industry’s key federal agencies including the NIH, FDA, BARDA, DARPA, and NSF,” Newby said.
As Virginia’s pocket ecosystems thrive, BioBuzz takes a look at some of the latest news coming from the state.
Earlier this year, pharma giant Merck announced the expansion of its vaccine manufacturing facility in Elkton. In April, the company said it completed the construction of an additional 120,000 square feet of space, which will allow it to hire an additional 150 employees. The Elkton site was expanded to increase capacity and supply of its human papillomavirus vaccine.
With the expansion, Merck expects the supply of its HPV vaccines to double by the end of next year as the company continues to expand capacity at existing facilities like in Elkton. The expansion in Elkton is part of the $1 billion pledge the company made in 2019 to expand production capacity at existing manufacturing facilities and build new facilities to address the global demand for HPV vaccines.
Biological materials management company ATCC forged an agreement with QIAGEN to provide the company with sequencing data from its collection of animal and human cell lines and biological materials. With the sequencing materials, QIAGEN’s bioinformatics unit QIAGEN Digital Insights to establish a database that will enable the company to develop and deliver high-value digital biology content for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. It will also enable the use of authenticated biological data sets to uncover new disease pathways and discover novel therapeutic targets.
Under terms of the agreement, ATCC will initially produce fully authenticated transcriptome (RNAseq) and whole exome sequencing (WES) datasets from its highly utilized human and animal cell lines. The datasets will include multiple biological and technical replicates that will help establish a baseline for a wide range of cell lines under typical cell culture conditions. Users will also be able to request datasets to be included in the database in the future.
For ATCC, the agreement with QIAGEN comes months after the company secured three grants from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to identify novel therapeutic approaches to treating viruses of global concern. Viruses included in the agreement include equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne virus that can cause fevers and neurological conditions that include meningitis or encephalitis.
In Virginia Beach, construction on a long-awaited biotech accelerator program has finally been completed and is now looking for tenants. Construction on the VABeachBio Accelerator was completed in February. The accelerator includes 5,700-square-feet of office and lab space. The space includes wet and dry labs, as well as a biosafety level 2 lab space.
Virginia Beach Economic Development Director Taylor Adams said the VABeachBio Accelerator is a first-of-its-kind facility in Virginia Beach.
Backed by Activation Capital, a new cluster accelerator has been launched in Richmond to “catalyze the growth of advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing and R&D” in Central Virginia. The goal of the new facility is to support the growth of the region as a globally competitive pharmaceutical manufacturing and R&D industry.
The facility will be suitable to support the production of essential medicines in the United States, a mission supported by Richmond-based Flow Corporation. In addition to supporting the development of essential medicines, the Richmond site is expected to help lower the costs of essential medicines and bolter access here and abroad. The formation of the accelerator builds upon 18 months’ work and initial investments in the region to make Virginia a leader in the nation’s efforts to boost state-side production of essential medicines.
Phlow CEO Eric Edwards said the “regional cluster accelerator will help further enhance domestic manufacturing as the private sector collaborates to create a resilient pharmaceutical supply chain in the US that will provide access to essential medicines for all Americans.”
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Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.