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Virginia Bio-Connect – The Success of Virginia’s First Statewide Collaborative Life Sciences Initiative

The end of 2023 marked the completion of Virginia’s first statewide life sciences initiative, Virginia Bio-Connect, which started in April 2021. This comprehensive industry cluster strengthening project, supported by Virginia Growth and Opportunity Foundation funding and led by the Virginia Biotechnology Association, engaged thousands of life sciences professionals and hundreds of organizations and companies within the sector with the overarching goal of fostering a more connected life sciences ecosystem, providing support for early-stage companies, and driving workforce development throughout the state.

Faced with the rapid advancements in the industry driven by AI, data analytics, and automation, the five Virginia BioHubs joined forces to leverage each region’s strengths, including keeping talent in the Commonwealth and accelerating commercialization. Collaboration was the keyword for all project goals to come to fruition and strengthen Virginia’s position in the life sciences field both nationally and internationally.

The five regional BioHubs – Charlottesville, Coastal Virginia, Northern Virginia, Greater Richmond, and Roanoke/Blacksburg/Lynchburg used Virginia Bio-Connect as a platform to begin or reinforce that collaboration. “Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the opportunity to connect and exchange experiences is something that everybody really appreciated,” said Amy Adams, the Director of the Institute for Biotechnology Innovation with George Mason University and one of the co-directors representing the Northern Virginia BioHub. “I now have a greater awareness of what’s going on in other regions and what resources are available that we in NOVA may be lacking. And as a team, we shared successes, challenges, and opportunities and came and worked together, which made us stronger as a state.”

At the same time, the regions have worked diligently to strengthen the community of emerging life science professionals and to connect them with experienced industry leaders.More than 50 Young Professionals Networking events helped employers meet future workers and fostered the opportunity to learn from each other, celebrate, and build connections withinthe ecosystem. “We hosted a series of Beer and Biotech networking events. VirginiaBio-Connect encouraged us to make our sporadic event more regular, and we have seen a constant steady stream of new folks who attended and asked that we continue to support these events,” added Adams.

To address the statewide challenge of growing and retaining life science talent within the state, the project introduced the STEM2VA internship program. This initiative supported Virginia life science companies hiring 97 Virginia university students and postdocs, providing crucial hands-on, real-time learning experiences. Hundreds of students expressed interest in this opportunity to connect with Virginia life science companies and gain this valuable experience greatly sought after by employers. Notably, to date, eight interns have secured full-time jobs post-internship, which speaks to the quality of readily available talent in Virginia and calls for the industry to continue engaging them prior to graduation before they start exploring peer states.

A newly created resource portal, www.virginiabioconnect.org, was created as the central place to communicate all of the activities, resources, jobs, and internships in Virginia’s life science industry. This dynamic platform continues to serve as an information source and networking space for life science entities and professionals who create a free profile.

The grant enabled support of a new statewide technology showcase, the Accelerate Investor Conference. At this venture investor and startup conference and early-stage business competition, Virginia companies were able to pitch before regional and national investors. Beyond that, the conference was an opportunity to network with investors and other companies, providing the participants with the increased experience and knowledge helpful to their growth and future success.

Perhaps the project activity with the greatest impact, and the one that will continue beyond the grant, is the acceleration of life science commercialization through a new life science mentor offering. In partnership with GMU’s Small Business Development Center – Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (SBDC-ICAP), three experienced life science professionals were hired to mentor early-stage pre-seed companies, help them progress along their startup journey, and raise capital. Having multiple dedicated mentors with different technical life science and business expertise helps young companies reduce time to market. In addition to the three life sciences mentors, startups also had access to SBDC-ICAP’s entire cadre of 15 additional mentors from different fields, adding to the benefits businesses received through the mentorship program.

Elizabeth Pyle, a seasoned industry professional and one of the three mentors, emphasized the importance of entrepreneurs seeking advisors and building trust with their mentors. “All mentors understand the entrepreneurial journey because they all went through it and learned by making mistakes, so we are glad we can help other people in the industry navigate that journey and avoid bumps and obstacles.”

The life science mentors served 110 businesses and helped create six companies and 141 new jobs since 2021, assisting them in various ways, from teaching them how to interact with investors to helping them with customer discovery and connecting them with needed resources. “More and more research faculty members are becoming interested now in mentorship because they need to understand the other side, the business side, before they build the program,” continues Pyle. ”The ecosystem is growing by leaps and bounds. I’ve seen the changes since 2019, and it feels fantastic to see people collaborate more than in the past. I see things happening on the horizon, and being part of it is exciting.”

Hal Irvin, Associate Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology Outreach of Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, emphasized the role of life science mentors during the project and in the future: “One key learning from our growing biotech startup community is their need for experienced life science mentors to advise them. We had that in our grant and need more of that funding moving forward.” The life science mentorship program is still available and funded by GMU, which continues its partnership with Virginia Bio and SBDC-ICAP under a Memorandum of Understanding. This sustained funding and partnership will facilitate continued team mentorship to support even more startups.

Fortunately, the end of the grant does not mean the end of the statewide collaboration. TheBioHub leaders will continue to meet, share best practices, and keep each other apprised of the advancements, challenges, and opportunities seen in each region.“It was a privilege to be a part of this impactful and collaborative grant!” concludes Irvin when reflecting on the grant’s impact. “I really thought the multi-region sector-specific approach was just what the Virginia biotech community needed. Our model could and should be applied to other industry sectors. Each region benefited from funding for local initiatives while working together on a broader goal to drive biotech economic development statewide.”

 

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