Carilion Clinic: Read the Roanoke Times Sunday article about progress at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Read the Roanoke Times Sunday article about progress at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Leaders of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute say lessons learned during its evolution ensure its success as economic development driver.

By Sarah Bruyn Jones
The Roanoke Times

The same hopes for new jobs and a vibrant research park once tied to the success of the Carilion Biomedical Institute now rest on the shoulders of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
As workers shape the structure that will house the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the research institute, leaders within the two groups are already planning for future construction.

"This is not going to be the last building," said Dennis Dean, acting director of the research institute. "I think this is going to end up being a biomedical research park that's an economic boon for the area."

The idea of a biomedical research park is not new to Roanoke. The joint vision of Carilion Clinic and the city was to establish one in the South Jefferson Redevelopment Area.
When Carilion Biomedical Institute was first unveiled a decade ago, its supporters contended it would attract promising biomedical businesses that would help to jump start the local economy.
Carilion Clinic gave $20 million as initial seed money to CBI and then several million more to help the organization build up its war chest of intellectual property and fund research ventures. CBI was supposed to become self-sufficient, and new businesses were expected to flock to the biomedical park.

Neither happened.

"We didn't regulate our money well," said Dr. Andre Muelenaer, who among several other positions is still the medical director for CBI. "We did a better job with entrepreneurs than with research labs, but it was a lesson learned."

While there are some CBI-backed companies still operating in the region and showing promise, to date Luna Innovations Inc. remains the only company to call the redevelopment area home. Luna, which develops and manufacturers products for the health care, telecommunications, defense and energy markets, filed for bankruptcy July 17.

Others, however, are located in downtown Roanoke and looking to grow. The biomedical park-- now called Riverside Center -- is being filled with a clinic building for Carilion physicians, a hotel, and the building that will house the VTC research institute and medical school.
Meanwhile, CBI has all but closed its doors.

Because the company still holds intellectual property it will not disappear entirely. Also, it still is incorporated with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.
Still, those who had leadership roles within CBI said the focus has shifted to the coming research institute.

"And now here we are almost 10 years later. Who cares in a sense what it ended up being?" said Dennis Fisher, the former president and CEO of CBI, a few weeks ago. "The final result is it occurred and brought an increased number of jobs and economic development."
It's just that the jobs and economic development are coming with Carilion recruiting doctors, and the medical school and research institute instead of new biomedical businesses, Fisher said.
Carilion officials maintain that CBI was the catalyst for VTC.

"It really is picking up the ball where CBI left it and having the research institute run with it," said Eric Earnhart, spokesman for Carilion. "And I don't think the ball was ever dropped."

New project made debut with promise of jobs

When the city and Carilion first unveiled the plans for a 75-acre biomedical business park in 2000, they estimated it could bring 2,500 high paying jobs. At the same time Carilion pledged to create 200 jobs within five years after buying the redevelopment land from the city.
CBI claims to have brought a dozen new companies to the Roanoke and New River valleys, bringing more than $100 million in economic impact and more than 100 new jobs since 2003. By the end of 2006, CBI says it helped facilitate $17 million in laboratory research, which has resulted in 100 discoveries, 68 inventions and 22 patents, according to the organization's Web site.

In the past three years, Carilion has hired more than 200 physicians, many of whom will see patients in the new clinic building set to open in September at the corner of South Jefferson Street and Reserve Avenue. The research institute seeks to employ more than 200 researchers by 2013. And so far, nearly 300 people have been given faculty appointments to the medical school, although many of those people also hold other jobs in the area.

Muelenaer said future partnerships beyond the initial VTC research institute could still be on the horizon. "A lot of seeds were planted and the trees are slowly growing," he said.

Dean said there are lessons that were learned from CBI that will allow the research institute to be more successful in bringing about economic development. "The first time was sort of an experiment, and then we realized the relationship between Virginia Tech and Carilion had not been developed," he said. "It [CBI] was not a failure because we learned a heck of a lot from that."

Seed money grows into research collaboration

The lessons are being applied in multiple ways, including in setting up the infrastructure for having people from Carilion and Virginia Tech collaborate on research.
While many of the details such as ownership of intellectual property are still being hammered out, Dean said both Virginia Tech and Carilion have learned a great deal on how to better keep collaborative efforts running.

In some instances it's meant intentionally pairing researchers from Virginia Tech with someone from Carilion. Previously those involved had thought that these pairings would happen organically, but Dean said it quickly became obvious that someone needed to match people who had similar interests.

That's how Shashank Priya, associate professor of materials science and engineering and of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, and Sonya Ranson, manager of the Center for Experiential Learning at Carilion, found each other. Ranson said her boss suggested she meet with Priya.

Priya is known for his research in energy harvesting, artificial muscles, humanoid skin and face, actuators and sensors, according to a Virginia Tech news release.
Ranson is in charge of running the robotic human simulator at Carilion to help clinicians practice and develop their clinical skills.

Together the two are working on a prototype of a human-like robotic patient. While current simulators can mimic some internal human functions, such as having a pulse, they do not exhibit external human features. So the simulator can't cry or reach for its neck when choking.
Using Priya's robotic skills and Ranson's understanding of the educational needs, the two are hoping to make the human simulators more realistic. "We're a nice team in that I have certain skills and background, and he has other skills that I don't," Ranson said. "I feel very fortunate."
To facilitate the partnership the research institute recently awarded the duo a $30,000 grant. In all, the research institute distributed six of these seed grants to get collaborative research off the ground.

Priya was out of town and unavailable for comment but said in a news release, "With this grant, we will develop a human-like patient and study specific disease states. This seed fund will significantly strengthen our efforts and allow us to achieve important milestones in order to secure funding from federal agencies."

Dean said the seed grants will be given out annually.

Besides supporting research that may one day be commercially viable, the seed grants are also allowing the research institute to work out some very technical details of how the collaboration between two separate entities will play out, Dean said. For example, one of the objectives of the grants is to gain an understanding of the expectations of both research partners.

Recruiting and construction ongoing

Dean and others leading the research institute are still focused on getting the building's doors open by August 2010. Construction is on time and on budget, Dean said.
While the state has put up $59 million to construct the building, it only covers the medical school side and two floors of the research institute. The third floor of the research institute will be a shell.

To finish the building, Virginia Tech has applied for a $10 million federal grant through the National Institutes of Health. The money is tied to the stimulus package signed by President Obama earlier this year and would allow the research institute to build its animal testing labs. In all, the third floor would likely cost $15 million, Dean said, meaning that they are also looking for philanthropic donations. "We need to get this done in the next year," he said.

The hunt is also under way for a founding director, with the hopes that the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors will have someone in place by January."We've had tremendous response to our ad," Dean said. "The quality of candidates is absolutely spectacular."

While the hiring determination ultimately rests with Virginia Tech, two subcommittees consisting of a dozen people from Virginia Tech and a dozen from Carilion are on the selection committee.

The committee has fielded 41 applications from all over the world and narrowed it down to a group of 10 candidates, Dean said. The hope is once that person is in place he or she will bring a team of researchers to fill senior research positions.