Virginia Tech is staking a new claim in the world of health sciences through a strong public-private partnership with Carilion Clinic and an estimated $46.7 million vote of confidence from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

University officials on Sunday told the Board of Visitors about a plan for the development of a far-reaching Health Sciences and Technology Innovation District in Roanoke.  

In addition, they discussed Virginia Tech’s new, comprehensive approach to the health sciences, which includes the Board of Visitor’s expected appointment today of Michael J. Friedlander, the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, as the inaugural vice president for health sciences and technology. Friedlander will also continue as executive director of the research institute 

Virginia Tech and Carilion’s drive to accelerate health sciences activity is fueled by the General Assembly’s recent bond approval, which includes the university’s request for $46.7 million of state funding — to be matched by $21 million from Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic — to construct a 105,000 square-foot facility to expand health sciences and technology research and training assets in Roanoke.

“The expansion of the health sciences and technology innovation hub in Roanoke is a tactical investment to grow the state’s biomedical and health research enterprise,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “We are building a statewide portfolio that will accelerate bioscience and medical research as a major component of the new Virginia economy. Our efforts will position the Commonwealth as a national leader in advanced research.”

Innovation districts are strategically created geographical areas that combine experts from industry and academia with the energy and minds of undergraduate, graduate, and medical students as well as postdoctoral fellows.

Students, trainees, and faculty members with diverse talents, along with Carilion clinicians, will come together in biomedical and health sciences labs in Roanoke to do research in a real-world context, reaching across boundaries to solve complex health problems.

“We are grateful for the governor’s and the legislature’s support,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. “This is an opportunity for the university to broaden its presence in the New River Valley-Roanoke Region with the addition of these educational and research resources. Working alongside Carilion Clinic, we also have the opportunity to influence global health outcomes and have a positive impact on Southwest Virginia communities through engaged research and educational experiences.”

University officials say the project would enable the recruitment of an additional 25 research teams, which would raise the total number of teams doing scientific investigations in Roanoke to about 55.

The new building will house biomedical research facilities, including high-resolution research imaging equipment. Once fully staffed, the annual economic impact of the expanded program would be $191 million annually, according to university estimates.


Preliminary architectural drawing of the future Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Expansion Building

A preliminary architectural drawing of the future Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Expansion Building.
A preliminary architectural drawing of the future Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Expansion Building.

In 2008, the Commonwealth, Virginia Tech, and Carilion Clinic joined together to create an advanced medical research institute and medical school in Roanoke. Within two years, this public-private partnership built the research and education facility.

Nancy Howell Agee, president and chief executive officer of Carilion Clinic, remembers looking out from her office window at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital fewer than 10 years ago and seeing a deserted landscape.

“Now there’s a beautiful park, clinical facilities, a school of medicine, and a research institute where there once was only a brownfield,” Agee said. “The research institute started from nothing and now has more than $110 million in research expenditures — and it is out of space and needs to grow. We are at a zenith. This is a moment when we can take stock of all that has been accomplished because of the vision of the previous leadership of Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic, and infuse it with this amazing new vision to grow and strengthen the Carilion Clinic medical enterprise and Virginia Tech.”

About a decade ago, Carilion Clinic announced a new health care delivery model, adding clinical sophistication, expertise, and greater access to health care at decreased costs, Agee said. The new medical school and research institute in 2010 dovetailed with those objectives.

More recently, since early 2015, leaders with Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic have focused on strategies to strengthen their existing partnership with the goal of further expanding economic development for the region and the Commonwealth.

“By recommitting and reinvesting we go to the next level,” said Friedlander, who will continue as executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and, as vice president for health sciences and technology, assemble campus leaders to focus on related research and educational programs developed through Virginia Tech’s “Destination Area” initiative. The destination areas are being identified through an intensive analysis of the university’s disciplinary and interdisciplinary strengths.

“These two great institutions are in this partnership for the long run,” Friedlander said. “Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic have both discovered a real synergy of goals and benefits through the ongoing partnership — the greatness of Virginia Tech as a top tier research university combined with the greatness of Carilion Clinic as a leading health system has created a new sheen of national recognition for both organizations.”

In addition, because Carilion Clinic is headquartered in Roanoke, the area becomes a living laboratory for Virginia Tech faculty and students — graduate, undergraduate, and medical, as well as postdoctoral fellows — to learn about health issues and to utilize the data resources, analytical tools, and infrastructure that will be in the new building. 

Eventually, about 500 undergraduate students will share the campus alongside the medical student and graduate student populations.

“As a research-intensive medical school, we welcome more undergraduates who are interested in research experiences to our Virginia Tech Carilion campus,” said Cynda Johnson, president and founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “Our location is ideal for students to learn both the art and science of medicine in a patient-centered setting.”

Working alongside their mentors from Carilion Clinic and the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, students — medical, undergraduate, and graduate — can draw upon a primary-care patient base. 

Provost Thanassis Rikakis says faculty members, undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral associates throughout the university system will flow through the Roanoke campus to learn in a real-world context and interact with Carilion clinicians, health professionals, and diverse patient populations — connecting their research directly to clinical outcomes and societal impact.

“I can imagine applying for admission here, as a bioengineering student for example, with ambitions to build robotic systems to help patients with traumatic brain injury,” Rikakis said. “I will have the opportunity to build top-notch robotics in my department facilities in Blacksburg and then take my concepts to Roanoke and work alongside Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute research faculty and graduate students to test and further evolve the systems with patients and rehabilitation experts. Once the systems are ready, I can engage business and industrial design experts along with venture capital opportunities to help me bring my collaborative outcomes to the market in an accelerated manner. That’s a great thing — we have the whole ecosystem.”

The Health Sciences and Technology Innovation District in Roanoke is also expected to attract 21st century industries to the city, including technology, business, and design firms. The ecosystem will support technology transfer and startup companies working in health sciences and technology.

Rikakis said Virginia Tech differentiates itself by taking advantage of characteristics unique to its local environment and to the university itself, the foremost being Virginia Tech’s expertise in technology.

“We have assets and abilities that are very hard for other academic centers to duplicate,” Rikakis said. “People who want to work or study at the intersection of health sciences and technology focused on the specialized areas that we are identifying through the destination area process as major interdisciplinary Virginia Tech strengths, and who want the opportunity for direct societal and economic impact, especially in underserved contexts, are going to want to be here, because we will be focusing so much energy in a comprehensive combination of these areas.”    

Share this story