Region Investing Heavily in Research, Technology

The Charlottesville region is spending money and exerting a great deal of effort to boost several sectors of research and technology, including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, cyber security, defense, health care, clean energy and more.

“What is the state of research and technology in the Charlottesville area? It’s never been better,” said Miette H. Michie, executive director and chief executive officer of the University of Virginia Patent Foundation.

The UVa Patent Foundation provides patenting and licensing services to researchers at the university. In fiscal 2009, the foundation won approval of a record-breaking 25 new patents. Another 203 patents were pending with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“There’s a lot of activity at UVa fostering translational research and faculty entrepreneurism,” Michie said.

A few especially bright spots at UVa, Michie said, include:

  • a multimillion-dollar U.S. Department of Energy research project that established a center tasked with converting methane gas and other hydrocarbon and fossil resources into economically viable fuel sources;
  • an ongoing $2.9 million, five-year grant by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation to accelerate biomedical tech transfer and commercialization; and
  • a major new collaboration between big pharma firm AstraZeneca and UVa to develop new treatments for coronary artery disease and peripheral vascular disease, both of which are major causes of cardiovascular disease and death.

The status of the region’s research and technology sector is perhaps most evident at UVa’s two research parks.

UVa’s 54-acre Fontaine Research Park, located near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Interstate 64, is fully built out and fully leased. The UVa Foundation, which owns and operates the research park, is pursuing a rezoning request to add 310,000 square feet on top of the already approved 565,000 square feet of development capacity to accommodate anticipated growth.

The 562-acre UVa Research Park, located off U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville, also has plans for expansion. The UVa Foundation is seeking a rezoning to add an additional 700,000 square feet of development capacity to an already approved 3 million square feet of density rights.

Deborah van Eersel, the UVa Foundation’s chief of staff and director of marketing, said the ongoing economic downturn has been a problem, but the UVa Research Park is benefiting from defense and homeland security firms wanting to be close to an expansion of the federal government’s nearby Rivanna Station.

“The economic downturn has had a negative effect on the entire region, though the growth in the NGIC [National Ground Intelligence Center] and the imminent move of five divisions of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] has helped to offset the downturn in the north 29 corridor of [Albemarle] County,” she said in an e-mail. “Understandably, contractors serving the NGIC and DIA are interested in the park due to its close proximity to Rivanna Station particularly as the new facility nears completion, and we are excited by the opportunities that presents for the students and faculty at the university.”

Van Eersel cited the examples of new UVa Research Park tenants MITRE Corp. and NIITEK Inc., two growing companies involved in high-tech defense.

She added that the UVa Foundation recently entered a purchase contract for a Motion Control Building that will serve as home to UVa’s Center for Applied Biomechanics, which conducts research that aims to reduce fatalities and injuries in auto accidents and other situations.

Gary Henry, founder of the Charlottesville Technology Incubator, which helps start-up firms get off the ground, said the region has a “small but growing” research and technology sector. Charlottesville, he said, benefits from a large number of current and former tech industry employees, as well as proximity to research conducted at UVa.

“Those two ingredients combine to create a really vibrant economy,” he said.

The technology business incubator, located on the Downtown Mall, is helping several young companies, Henry said. Among these are ArtQuiver,an online art seller, and Retail Relay, a Web based grocery delivery service serving the area.