Bio builder: How to grow biotech right here at home

Cville BioHub's Nikki Hastings. Photo: Sanjay Suchak Cville BioHub’s Nikki Hastings. Photo: Sanjay Suchak

Charlottesville’s biotech industry—of which the University of Virginia is a major driver—is lively and growing, employing around 1,800 people. Nikki Hastings, formerly an executive at two of those companies, recently took the helm at CvilleBioHub, a local industry group with an ambitious vision: “to double the size of the biotech industry over the next 10 years.” We asked her how the Hub will make it happen.

C-BIZ: What are some ways that the local biotech industry could benefit from more connections among companies?

Nikki Hastings: It’s beneficial to have biotech companies working together and communicating about talent pools, local resources, and shared best practices. These companies are not directly competing with one another, which allows for deeper connection and synergy. Biotech community members share knowledge and experience about local supporting resources—website developers, lawyers, accountants, and general contractors. These are services that all companies need. CvilleBioHub can also connect job candidates to local opportunities; as applicant volume to CvilleBioHub increases, member companies benefit from exposure to and matching with applicants.

What are some of the barriers biotech entrepreneurs face when starting up here as opposed to larger cities?

The three major barriers faced are access to space, capital, and talent. While biotech space is [at] a premium in places like Boston (around $80 per square foot compared to around $20 per square foot in Charlottesville), it can be harder to find desirable locations here. There’s very little available wet lab space. It is risky for start-up companies to sign long-term leases and it takes significant bandwidth to manage the space. Sublease or incubator models that are seen in other communities help companies to get established. While we don’t have a major venture capital presence here, there are several local angel funds and investors in the Char- lottesville region that can help biotech companies get off the ground, including UVA Seed Fund, Charlottesville Angel Network, and CAV Angels. On the talent side, Charlottesville has need for a deeper pool of experienced entrepreneurs and executive leaders that can balance the technical expertise that come with new concepts. With more companies in a localized network, top talent can move from one company to the next and take on more risky ventures without having to relocate.

In your experience as an executive at local companies HemoShear and Contraline, what were some key moments in overcoming those barriers?

HemoShear Therapeutics spun out from UVA in 2009, and at the height of its growth phase transitioned from its first space on Fifth Street Extended to its current headquarters in the old Martha Jefferson Hospital in 2014. It was important for the company to stay near downtown—a sign that barriers in space and talent attraction were surmountable here. Contraline began separate operations from UVA in 2016, and within one year raised over $2 million in the first round of financing (in part from West Coast venture capitalists), and recruited top scientific talent to develop the core technology. Each company has faced its own unique challenges, but the barriers to commercialization seem fewer in Charlottesville today compared to 10 years ago.

How, specifically, will CvilleBioHub help drive investment in local biotech?

Our primary strategy is to raise awareness about the 50 or so innovative and exciting biotech companies that we have here and where future growth opportunities exist. Medical devices, instrumentation, new drugs, biologics manufacturing, and agribiotech are key drivers of the industry here and are attracting national investment attention. CvilleBioHub is learning from the successes of other biotech communities—for example, in Maryland and North Carolina. As we learn more about these models, we can determine what makes the most sense for Charlottesville and central Virginia.

What will the other key goals be for CvilleBioHub over the next year to five years?

Primarily, CvilleBioHub will focus on sustainability. The goal is for CvilleBioHub to coordinate an all- inclusive organization, involving the broader Charlottesville community—UVA, government, and local economic developers. Any company that identifies with biotech, life sciences, and development of technologies that impact human health can participate and create an online profile. There are no costs to join or attend our monthly gatherings. As we build the community, we can address infrastructure, space, capital, and talent through strong partnerships with GO Virginia, UVA, and economic development authorities.

How will a stronger biotech industry benefit the area in general?

Growth and sustainability will allow strong talent to be attracted here and to stay. Biotech jobs pay 85 percent more than average salaries. By supporting the growth of well-paid jobs, our entire region will benefit from these dollars.

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