“Our region is a world-class destination and the potential looks to be limitless.”
That was a key takeaway for Kevin Byrd, executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission, after learning about how Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic’s unique public-private partnership is invigorating the region’s economy.
“This is the biggest thing in Southwest Virginia,” said Dan O’Donnell, Roanoke County administrator, echoing Byrd’s comments.
Ninety-seven government officials settled into the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine auditorium in Roanoke for a first-of-its-kind joint regional public forum on Thursday. Governments from more than 20 localities spanning the New River Valley, Roanoke region, and Alleghany Valley were represented.
Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Carilion Clinic’s President and Chief Executive Officer Nancy Howell Agee set the tone by portraying how both organizations have invested significantly throughout the region and across the commonwealth.
In addition, VTC School of Medicine Dean Lee Learman and Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, elaborated on the extraordinary growth in educational, research, and innovation initiatives that have taken place in Roanoke over the past nine years.
Virginia Tech employs more than 13,000 people and enrolls more than 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students annually. The land-grant university has growing campuses in Blacksburg; Roanoke; the Greater Washington, D.C., metro area; and Hampton Roads, as well as Extension and research centers located throughout the commonwealth.
“We pride ourselves on partnerships and collaboration, and we’re ready to do more,” Sands said.
Carilion’s $2 billion operations span across a 230-mile service area. Providing more than 13,500 jobs in the region, Carilion invests in cutting-edge technology and its physicians are pioneering new, minimally invasive techniques to revolutionize health care delivery.
“If you take away one thing tonight, it’s that you can receive top quality health care right here,” Agee said.
Agee also stressed the importance of building strong community partnerships, noting how Carilion and Roanoke City Public Schools recently announced the development of a pediatric health care clinic in Fallon Park Elementary School. The facility is expected to open in August 2020 and will provide clinical care to help both students and their families.
Established through the Virginia Tech Carilion partnership that began in 2007, the VTC School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute play foundational roles in the region’s emerging academic health center.
Learman emphasized how the partnership is essential for cultivating the medical school’s dynamic, patient-centered curriculum. The VTC School of Medicine, which graduated its sixth class in May, has achieved a 100 percent residency match rate.
Many medical students come to Roanoke from outside of the state, but so far 18 have stayed in the region for an additional three to six years to complete residency training at Carilion, indicating the high quality of education and mentorship that they receive through the Virginia Tech Carilion partnership.
Learman also noted how supportive governments and communities “fuel our engines and help us in implementing this vision – our commitment to serve – a mission of both Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic.”
According to a 2018 economic impact analysis by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Virginia Tech Carilion partnership, and VTC School of Medicine have already infused more than $450 million into the local economy.
“We talk a lot about the economic benefit, and that’s all great, but what stands out to me is the research that’s going on here,” said Bob Cowell, Roanoke’s city manager. “This is about actually changing people’s lives. Whether it’s working with infants and stroke or brain injuries, it’s pretty amazing what they’re working on here and how it’s going to change not just our local and regional economies, but also the lives of people worldwide.”
Friedlander outlined the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s positive trajectory and anticipated growth. The institute’s research portfolio is anticipated to double in size with the expansion of a 140,000-square-foot building, slated to open next fall, where roughly 400 additional scientists and staff will be working by 2027.
Friedlander also described examples of how the research institute’s scientists are addressing pressing health challenges, including heart disease, cancer, addiction, and brain disorders.
But the research institute’s economic impact extends far beyond the labs.
Fralin Biomedical Research Institute scientists are starting companies that move discoveries from the lab to the market to improve health outcomes while driving economic growth through the development and commercialization of intellectual property. Research institute scientists and leadership are collaborating with companies across the world to develop new diagnostics and therapeutics. In just nine years, researchers and graduate students working at the institute have spun out five companies.
Sands and Friedlander both highlighted how a new startup, BEAM Diagnostics Inc., led by Sarah Snider, a senior research associate in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center (AARC), is partnering with tech company Excella to develop a new app that prevents alcohol abuse and relapse. Snider began developing these tools while doing postdoctoral work in the lab of Warren Bickel, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and AARC director.
Friedlander also shared developments from another new spin-out, the Tiny Cargo Company, founded by Robert Gourdie, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and director of the Center for Heart and Reparative Medicine Research. Gourdie and his team have developed a molecule that could improve heart attack recovery, and are introducing new drug delivery methods using lipid droplets called exosomes derived naturally from cow’s milk.
Government officials in attendance welcomed the chance to learn about the emerging academic health center, Virginia Tech and Carilion’s investments, and the Roanoke Innovation Corridor.
“Having all the elected officials from these various communities together, working as one region, is really the future for our entire area,” said Craig Meadows, Montgomery County’s administrator. “While we all have our natural resources and our assets that are unique to our communities, we all have to be pulling them together to move into the 21st century and beyond.”