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May 03, 2012

Biotech leaders say their industry is primed for growth around university

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Thursday, May 3, 2012

On one side of town, advocates for limiting local population growth told the Albemarle supervisors a new study recommending industries targeted for economic growth was flawed. In part, they said, because new businesses would seek to retain in the community students graduating from the University of Virginia.

20120502-Anthony_Graham
Graham Anthony, CFO of Biovista

Later that evening in the city of Charlottesville, a mix of local officials, investors, innovators and start-up incubators gathered to talk about the work that’s already happening to grow the area’s biotech sector.


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A panel of speakers assembled Wednesday as part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival’s innovation series said they need students to stay in the area after graduating and that biotech is growth that’s good for the community.

In the audience of about 40 people, City Councilor Kathy M. Galvin challenged the crowd to work toward getting local government and the community to “embrace the idea of growth” to address “entrenched poverty.”

“I think when we no longer have 18 percent unemployment among our 18- to 30-year-old population in the city, when we no longer have over 50 percent of our children on the free and reduced[-price] lunch program in the city, [then] I think we can be very comfortable and say we don’t need to worry about growth and economic vitality,” Galvin said.

Tom Olivier, chairman of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, is one critic of a study conducted for the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development that identified biosciences, business and financial services, and information technology as a good fit for businesses to attract to Charlottesville-Albemarle.

“As you know, human population growth harms our environment,” Olivier told the Albemarle supervisors earlier in the day. “Our organization believes that county economic programs should be judged by the extent to which they support a vision for a sustainable community in which every resident has an opportunity to live a good life.”

Olivier said in an interview that he shares Galvin’s belief that economic development should create jobs for current residents that need them. He questions whether the “multiplier effect” from biotech will accomplish that goal.

“Our skepticism is around the idea that a good economy to strive for is one with more high-end, high-talent jobs,” Olivier said. “Any economic development proposal should serve the needs of the community, it should provide better jobs for local residents, particularly the working poor, and we don’t see that being addressed.”

The Tom Tom innovation series has ignited a discussion about the community’s future. Oliver Platts-Mills, the festival’s co-founder, says he wants to celebrate the area’s talents and help to brand Charlottesville as the hip place to be an entrepreneur.

20120502-TomTom-IS3BPhoto: Sabrina Schaeffer, The Daily Progress (used by permission)

For the biotech panel, Platts-Mills recruited Mark Crowell, UVa’s director of innovation partnerships; Graham Anthony, CFO of Biovista; Niki Hastings, vice president of HemoShear; Uday Gupta, CEO of Global Cell Solutions; and Martin Chapman, CEO of Indoor Biotechnologies.

The group discussed the challenges facing start-up companies, their connections to UVa faculty and students, and some of the factors that make Charlottesville a special place to do business.

Panelists were asked to reflect on the concerns raised by the Sierra Club about retaining UVa students, population growth and sustainability.

“People who espouse that philosophy ought to be asked to think about what this community would be like if UVa slides downwards,” Crowell said. “The communities that are creating the high-value jobs, and are growing in the right way, are the ones that have really strong and robust research universities.”

Genevieve Keller, a Charlottesville native and chairwoman of the city’s Planning Commission, said she recently toured HemoShear, a biotech research company that spun out of UVa. HemoShear does pre-clinical research to help drug companies test their products in a “petri dish platform” that mimics human organs.

“I was really struck by the fact that [the employees] … are working between the university and HemoShear, and so proximity is really important,” Keller said. “To me, that really is compatible with our city goals for more dense housing and for people living in the city.”

“My response to the Sierra Club is that this industry is very good because it’s going to go with this compact development pattern that we want,” Keller added. “As a preservationist, I want to applaud you for re-use and adaptive use [of buildings]. You have shown that buildings that people thought were white elephants can be re-used very effectively.”

One audience member asked the panelists what, besides UVa, made Charlottesville the community of choice for their start-ups.

“It’s quality of life,” Gupta responded. “For me, it’s a five-minute commute, I can work a long day, and then I can see my family.”

“Smart people, a safe environment and a beautiful place to be,” Anthony responded.

The next panel discussion in the innovation series will be held on May 9 at The Gleason, at 126 Garrett St. It will focus on how social media is being utilized by local technology businesses.

Follow the Tom Tom innovation series at http://www.cvilletomorrow.org/TomTom.

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