UVA and research partners get $1 million grant to speed innovation

UVA President Teresa Sullivan takes notes as acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank announces a federal grant to support high-tech research in Virginia at a press conference at the Rotunda on Wednesday, September 19. Photo by Graelyn Brashear. UVA President Teresa Sullivan takes notes as acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank announces a federal grant to support high-tech research in Virginia at a press conference at the Rotunda on Wednesday, September 19. Photo by Graelyn Brashear.

UVA will be at the center of a new state support network for high-tech researchers, thanks to a $1 million federal grant announced yesterday.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank—a former Clinton advisor who was on the faculty of the University of Michigan when UVA President Teresa Sullivan was Provost there—announced the award in person yesterday at press conference in Rotunda dome room. The grant is one of severn given out across the country to a vast pool of applicants as part of the latest round of funding in the national i6 Challenge, an Obama administration initiative to fuel innovative technology development and translational research.

Such research—into new pharmaceuticals, medical devices, information technology, and other high-tech products and processes—can be a huge economic driver, Blank said, but often needs extra support in the initial stages to get to the “proof of concept” stage, a point where there’s a working prototype with which to woo investors.

“That question of which ideas you invest it, which ones are most promising—that’s hard,” Blank said. Helping shepherd solid research through to the point where venture capitalists are willing to step in can greatly increase the chances of success, and the reward is more companies and more high-paying jobs. “There’s enormous payback,” she said.

According to the Virginia Innovation Partnership, the coalition of colleges nonprofits, and corporations that applied for the i6 grant, the federal boost will allow for the creation of a Proof of Concept Center that will create 2,000 new jobs after eight years.

And while $1 million may seem like a relatively small amount, Blank and UVA officials said the impact of the efforts it will kickstart will be significant. The VIP agreed to more than match the federal money, giving the new Center—which won’t have a physical home, but will be administered by staff within UVA’s Innovation department—about $2.5 million to disburse. But it’s also the catalyst for the forging of a review panel of experts from UVA, Virginia Tech, and elsewhere who won’t just hand out the money, they’ll offer help and insight to all applicants with direct feedback and access to investors.

A similar process already exists within the UVA community, but the federal funding allows the same kind of support for researchers to be scaled up to a state level, said UVA Vice President for Research Tom Skalak. And it’s more comprehensive, said Director of Innovation Mark Crowell. While other efforts have focused squarely on giving researchers scientific support only, “this will be science and marketing and the patent landscape,” Crowell said.

 

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