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Chandra Briggman column: Filling the nation’s need for essential medicines

Richmond, VA, (Richmond Times Dispatch) – While many of us have been focused this month on the Olympics and Super Bowl, another competition is underway that could make an enormous impact on our community and nation.

The Build Back Better Regional Challenge is a historic grant competition issued by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. BBBRC is the EDA’s “moonshot” competition, searching for regions engaged in transformational work to build a globally competitive industry cluster. Some 529 U.S. regions applied, and 60 semifinalists were selected — including us, the Greater Richmond and Petersburg region.

The Virginia Biotechnology Research Partnership Authority, and a coalition of entities across the area, are busy rallying support and creating detailed plans to submit by mid-March. By summer, 30 winners will be selected. The prize: seed grants ranging from $25 million to $100 million per region to support multifaceted plans that accelerate cluster growth, workforce development, global competitiveness and equitable economic development.

The BBBRC aims to increase American competitiveness and build resilient local economies. This is best done through collaboration — a best practice built into the EDA’s competition requirements.

Our region’s proposal will help develop this new industry within Virginia’s life sciences sector, which is built upon regional research, innovation and manufacturing assets. Our goal is to build a world-class hub to research and manufacture essential medicines for Americans by leveraging our competitive assets. It’s an ambitious one fueled by the disturbing fact that more than 80% of our nation’s medicines are sourced overseas.

But we can change that. We landed in the top 10% nationally by working together in nontraditional ways. We will continue working across every boundary to build a more inclusive, dynamic regional economy by serving the nation’s need for safe medicines.

Innovation is a team sport, and we organized a multi-jurisdictional, public-private sector team before BBBRC was announced. The effort began with the VCU College of Engineering tapping former Virginia Bio CEO Jeff Gallagher to lead a strategic planning process. The goal was to translate the impressive early wins by the VCU Medicines for All Institute (M4ALL) and Phlow Corp. into an industry.

More than 100 stakeholders from industry, academia, community colleges, trade associations and economic development groups created the plan. Twelve key organizations pooled their time and funds, forming Virginia’s first “cluster accelerator” to implement the plan. This came together at startup speed and with the help of GO Virginia, a business-led economic development initiative.

Our scale-up plan:

  • Ensures Petersburg’s sewer and water infrastructure can best support the 200-acre manufacturing campus under construction by Phlow, AMPAC Fine Chemicals and Civica Rx;
  • Provides much-needed research and development lab capacity at the VA Bio+Tech Park and pivots it into a vibrant new Life Sciences Corridor, nurturing VCU and industry intellectual property and companies;
  • Constructs a first-of-its-kind scale-up and development center for these new technologies — speeding their transition from benchtop to the factory;
  • Develops a best-in-nation workforce training program through Virginia’s community college network to prepare people for high-paying jobs — starting with Brightpoint Community College;
  • Links Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University curricula to create pathways for VSU students into VCU’s world-leading pharmaceutical engineering programs; and to equip VSU’s College of Engineering and Technology to support the industry’s research, education and training; and
  • Equips the Greater Richmond Partnership and Virginia’s Gateway Region with additional resources to fill the supply chain gaps required for the industry to thrive.

I’m no stranger to collaboration that achieves audacious goals. In June 2020, I relocated from Boston to lead the Virginia Biotechnology Research Partnership Authority (and dba Activation Capital, a political subdivision of the commonwealth, providing resources for industry clusters, entrepreneur support organizations and entrepreneurs). While living in the nation’s leading life sciences supercluster, I learned Massachusetts’ $210 billion-plus innovation economy results from intense connection and collaboration.

This type of collaboration is not accidental nor easy. It’s darn hard. But we roll up our sleeves because our nation needs safe, affordable medicines; our region needs rewarding high-paying jobs; and we have smart, hard-working Virginians who can deliver on this promise.

It’s a remarkable opportunity to reinvent the way medicines are made, reshore manufacturing to the U.S., secure the nation’s supply of essential medicines, reduce the cost of generics, improve access to health and create high-paying jobs. And it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Greater Richmond and Petersburg region to raise the flag for Virginia life sciences.

This opportunity is no chance encounter. It’s the result of hard work and inventiveness. It’s a story of years of investment by the Bio+Tech Park, VCU, M4ALL, VSU, the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, the Community College Workforce Alliance, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the cities of Richmond and Petersburg, ChamberRVA, the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation, the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation, GO Virginia, Phlow, AMPAC, Civica Rx, VA Bio and many others. It’s a story of knitting together our people and regional assets for a common purpose bigger than any one of us.

Transformational innovation like building an industry requires collaboration. We’re playing as a team and planning for a win for Virginia. But we need more than cheering supporters. We need bold commitments from Gov. Glenn Youngkin, members of the General Assembly, university and community college presidents, localities, and civic and trade organizations to help the commonwealth become the No. 1 hub for essential medicine research and manufacturing.

Read more here.

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