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Seven higher-education research institutions in Virginia have partnered to drive innovation and economic development through collaboration.
Corinne Lestch is a staff reporter covering education for EdScoop and its affiliate public sector technology news websites, FedScoop and StateScoop...
What would happen if the top research universities in Virginia shared their state-of-the-art facilities and cutting-edge technologies with each other?
It would increase competition — and innovation — through collaboration, according to Michael Grisham, president and CEO of Virginia Catalyst, a nonprofit that advances research in biosciences and life sciences. The organization, which has awarded 24 grants totaling $10 million to Virginia universities over its first four years, is funded through the Virginia General Assembly.
That vision will now be put to the test with the announcement that seven of the state's higher education institutions have signed an agreement to share their resources. Officials expect the agreement will help boost the state economy, potentially create more startup companies — and with that, more high-paying jobs — and expand biosciences research.
The vice presidents for research from the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Eastern Virginia Medical School, George Mason University, Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech and William & Mary will work together along with Virginia Catalyst to stimulate growth.
“Virginia Tech is proud to be part of this unique research agreement and we applaud the spirit of cooperation and collaboration it represents," said President Tim Sands. "Virginia’s research institutions are doing remarkable things to improve lives and energize the Commonwealth’s economy, and when we work together, the sky’s the limit.”
Grisham said that before this agreement, Virginia universities were more aware of new research coming out of places like Stanford and Johns Hopkins rather than peer institutions in their own backyard.
"What the universities recognized was that they needed to change their models of funding for research, and needed to do that working with industry and government," Grisham told EdScoop. "Our job at Catalyst was to change that, and this new announcement is huge – having universities share resources with each other."
So for example, if investigators from VCU want to tap advanced brain scan equipment, they could go to Virginia Tech to "access their next-gen sequencing machines or high-powered MRI scanners for doing brain scans," Grisham added.
Grisham said the unique partnership between the schools "is totally changing the paradigm" by attracting new technology companies and revenue streams, "and we're doing it by taking the assets that Virginia has and having them work together."
In order to ensure that such a complex operation runs smoothly, Grisham said the government offered money for the creation of new databases of all of the state's leading neuroscientists, along with the facilities that do deep brain imaging and stimulation. There is also a new statewide patient registry of all neuroscience patients that can be accessed by the universities as well as their corresponding hospitals and medical centers.
"So if you’re a researcher and wanted to find out how many patients with Parkinson's disease we have in Virginia, of women between the ages of 20 and 45 who don’t have diabetes and cancer, because they want to do a major research project, we can answer all of those data," he said.
Grisham also acknowledged the role that big data plays in this large-scale project involving massive amounts of information.
"We want to engage the Googles and the Northrop Grummans, because we can't do data without IT," he said. "Unfortunately, biologists don't know what a terabyte is, and most IT people don't know how to spell biology."
He argued that Virginia can bring specialists together from both areas in order to give the state a competitive edge, but that means companies like Google, Apple, IBM, Intel and Northrop Grumman need to get involved. State IT officials, in a separate development, are in the process of unwinding a long-standing IT arrangement with Northrup Grumman, due to expire in 2019, in a move to spur more competitive arrangements with leading technology players.
"They have a great deal of expertise in big data, but they have not applied it to healthcare and life sciences," Grisham said of the technology giants. "The combination of big data with the leadership we have in biology will give Virginia a huge competitive advantage. Out of that you have true innovation, and out of innovation you create new companies and really drive economic development."
Grisham said that, ultimately, the goal is to drive new jobs in the state.
"This is a strategy to really stimulate economic development and help Virginia be a leader in life sciences," he said. "It's a new paradigm that did not exist even three years ago. This is a breakthrough."