Boeing gives Virginia Tech $50M for innovation campus

Concept art for the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus's academic building. (Virginia Tech)

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Boeing donated $50 million to help found Virginia Tech’s Innovation campus, a billion-dollar project area leaders hope will bring together power-players in the region — like Amazon — to boost economic growth and build a pipeline of STEM talent for businesses.

The university announced the multi-year gift in a celebratory press event on Tuesday, emphasizing how it will benefit underrepresented groups in tech fields, including women, people of color and low-income populations. The project draws attention for its location, two miles from Amazon’s HQ2 campus, near a future transit station and across the river from Washington D.C., but speakers focused on the promise the Innovation Campus has for students.

Boeing’s gift is primarily focused on that mission, providing scholarships and fellowships and a student success center to support students through their programs and recruiting renowned faculty to teach them.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said his corporation’s greatest need is talent in STEM fields, particularly in data science and analytics.

Like other “innovation” projects announced by universities or state governments, the Innovation Campus will offer labs and academic resources but also offices for startups and larger businesses. When first appointed as executive director of the campus in 2020, Lance Collins said the campus would offer opportunities for businesses to open physical offices and plan projects that students could investigate.

Another component of the project is offering support for students outside of class. The campus will offer residential space and the Boeing gift will fund a student success center.

The project is still in early days; the inaugural class started in Fall 2020 and the campus is still under construction. However, the campus’s executive director, Lance Collins, said the gift will “get things started today that we were thinking we would get started in a couple of years,” providing greater access for students who might not otherwise be able to afford to attend the campus.

Being able to find and recruit students and give them a direct path to careers in tech would benefit the region’s competitiveness, said Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA. That includes people of color, who account for about 35% of the state’s population.

“If we don’t have that 35% and growing percentage of Virginia be part of the talent pipeline and be part of an innovation economy then Virginia and for that matter, indirectly, the United States, is not going to be able to succeed,” Warner said during the event.

Warner also said the Innovation Campus and the Boeing partnership could attract federal funding designed to help the U.S. stay competitive with China in the tech sector. That funding could first aid the semiconductor industry, but Warner also listed research in technologies like AI, quantum sciences and 5G as potentially getting a boost.

“If we do this right, we should get a big piece of both the research dollars and the talent pipeline that will allow the United States and democracies to keep the lead, because in many ways, that I believe at least, the competition in 21st century will be militarily, but it will be more importantly technology-based.”

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