Monday, January 31, 2011

One question with Joe Meredith, president of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center

Do you have to be a rocket scientist to run the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center?

Considering his educational background, you'd expect Joe Meredith would spend his days designing high-tech weapons systems, space shuttles and manned missions to Mars.

A bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech. A master's degree in aeronautics, astronautics and engineering science from Purdue University. A doctorate in industrial and systems engineering from Virginia Tech.

But for the past 18 years, Meredith's design work has dealt mostly with business plans and lease contracts as president of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

During his tenure, the center has grown to include 27 buildings with about 1 million square feet of space on a 120-acre campus. It is home to 140 private companies that employ more than 2,200 people. VT Knowledge Works, an incubator program at the center, is working with more than 50 startup companies. In September, the center was named the 2010 Outstanding Research/Science Park by the Association of University Research Parks.

So do you have to be a rocket scientist to run the Corporate Research Center?

"Gosh, I hope not, or I'll never be able to retire. I don't know that the aeronautics has had any benefit. I do think having a technical education has allowed me to develop stronger relationships in the park with companies that have managers who are technologists. It's easier to develop rapport if you think you have the same technical background.

"One of my educational experiences was at Defense Systems Management College [a U.S. government school for Department of Defense weapons systems program managers]. So I did have a number of business-related courses. Even though I don't hold a business degree, I got a little more business education than other engineering students.

"The CRC promotes two strategies: starting up and recruiting early stage companies as well as attracting large companies. At Newport News Shipbuilding [his previous employer; now Northrop Grumman], I was what is known as an 'intrapreneur' ... an entrepreneur working within a large company. When they had either new products or new divisions that they were interested in setting up, I had the opportunity to develop business plans and try to develop consensus to launch that initiative and raise money within the company to do that.

"Even as an intrapreneur I had to raise money within the company to launch a venture I was trying to launch. That gave me an appreciation of the challenges that an entrepreneur faces, and gave me insight into how large companies think. It gave me the experience to both encourage startups and attract major companies to the CRC.

"By having an engineering degree, you signal to the world that you're pretty much an analytical, logical thinker. As a result, people perceive me as predictable.

"Risk and your approach to risk are two different things. Engineers approach risk for risk minimization and predictable outcomes. I'm not going to do anything wild and crazy and out of the box. As an engineer, I hope people find me to be more approachable and more dependable."

By Michael Hemphill, special to The Roanoke Times

Monday, January 24, 2011

Richmond study recommends support for biotech park

An economic-development study prepared for the city of Richmond calls for enhancing the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park and redeveloping the former Armstrong High School on North 31st Street into a training and education center.

In addition, the study recommends a redevelopment initiative in which the city would identify and assemble up to 200 acres for a new technology or industrial park or corridor.

"The best opportunities for such a redevelopment initiative lie south of the James River, especially in the Manchester area and along Commerce Road," a team of consultants concluded in the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy study.

The 134-page report, which has been approved by the federal Economic Development Administration and is a prerequisite for federal funding, cites the area's access and proximity to rail, Interstate 95, the Port of Richmond and land that could be made available for development.

While directed largely toward federal initiatives, the study emphasizes projects that support the development of work-force skills, as well as jobs in "knowledge-based industries, such as the life sciences and biotechnology sector."

To that end, the study suggests that the city join with state and local partners to seek federal grant funding to support the proposed Virginia Life Sciences Commercialization Center at the BioTechnology Research Park downtown.

As envisioned, the center would include wet and dry lab facilities, offices and space for light assembly. In addition, the city could seek federal assistance to start a revolving loan fund focused on small- and medium-size businesses in the life-sciences sector.

Further, the study calls for redeveloping the former Armstrong High School into a modern training center.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones' administration said the center would mesh with revitalization efforts for the Nine Mile Road and 25th Street corridor, as well as support institutions such as J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Bon Secours Richmond Health System and VCU Medical Center.

The high school was closed in 2004, when Armstrong merged with John F. Kennedy High School. The merged school, on Cool Lane, retained the Armstrong name.

The study was prepared by TIP Strategies of Austin, Texas, with help from the Hill-Christian Consulting Group of Richmond, through a yearlong process that included input from business and civic leaders.

The Hill-Christian Consulting Group is led by Sheila Hill-Christian, who worked as Richmond's chief administrative officer under then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, as well as a volunteer leader of Jones' transition. She also worked briefly as a paid consultant to the Jones administration and now represents the city on the GRTC Transit System's board of directors.

The Jones administration said it pushed to complete the $164,250 study after the city was on the verge of losing $105,000 in federal grant funds received from 2005 to 2007 to help cover the study's costs. The remaining costs were covered by the city.

In a rushed vote, the city council agreed last month to submit the study to the federal Economic Development Administration. At the time, council members said the Jones administration had not provided enough time to review the document.

Council members also have expressed frustration that the Jones administration has not had a dedicated, full-time director of economic development for the past 15 months. Peter H. Chapman, deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development, has been serving as interim director while the position has been advertised.

In a statement, the Jones administration said Chapman's department has restored the city's credibility among economic-development stakeholders, including the Economic Development Administration.

"We are truly excited that another important avenue of funding will be opened up to Richmond as a result of completing this strategy," the Jones administration said.

By Will Jones
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fast-growing firm expands at biotech park

The fastest-growing company in the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park opened an expanded office and laboratory space Wednesday.

Since it was founded in 2009, Health Diagnostic Laboratory Inc. has grown from a staff of 11 people to about 180 employees. Its revenue reached about $70 million in 2010, said Tonya Mallory, the company's co-founder and chief executive officer.

The company still is hiring and expects to reach a total employment of about 210 this year.

"We're adding about a half a body a day," Mallory joked at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday for the company's expanded 42,000-square-foot office and lab space in the park's Biotech Eight building, which was shell space before HDL Inc.'s $4.2 million expansion.

"It's quite amazing what we have been able to accomplish," Mallory said. "We're glad to be in the city." She said all but a few of the people the company has hired are from Virginia.

The company's rapid growth is unusual for biotechnology, where firms often take years to develop products and grow beyond a handful of employees, or reach profitability.

HDL has tapped into growing demand in the health-care market, providing diagnostic services for physicians to help them with early detection of health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

The company's growth is a milestone in the park's 16-year history, said Robert T. Skunda, the park's chief executive officer.

The 34-acre park in downtown Richmond is home to 66 private sector firms, nonprofits, research institutes and government laboratories.

Biotechnology advocates hope that the General Assembly will pass legislation during the current session to spur more investment in biotechnology firms.

The Virginia Biotechnology Association backs legislation that would provide a refundable research and development tax credit for companies.

Two bills have been introduced that would provide a tax credit to Virginia companies amounting to 15 percent of the cost of qualified research and development expenses. As an added incentive to invest, the credit would increase to 20 percent if the research is conducted in partnership with a public college or university in Virginia.

"Certainly, I think it would be a help to many early-stage companies that we see here at the research park," Skunda said.

Companies would be able to apply for a refundable credit even if they are not profitable, said Mark Herzog, executive director of the Virginia Biotechnology Association.

Herzog said the credit would help companies obtain capital to reinvest in their businesses.

"In this economic environment, it is incredibly hard for many life sciences companies to obtain the capital they need to continue to make investments in equipment, clinical trials and people," Herzog said. He said 38 other states have a similar tax credit for research and development.

Mallory, the HDL chief executive, said a tax credit would help the firm expand its 10-person research and development staff.

By John Reid Blackwell
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pixel Optics emPower featured on "Live! with Regis and Kelly

Roanoke-based Pixel Optics, a company presenter at Mid-Atlantic Bio in 2008, was featured this morning on "Live! with Regis and Kelly". In a segment about the latest in technology, the Pixel Optics emPower, the world’s first electronic focusing prescription eyewear, was shown by technology expert, Leo Laporte.