U. Va. Biolab Seeks to Catalyze Region's Growth

Thomas Barker says his seed-stage startup wants to find “modern, modular, functional lab space” to allow the company he co-founded, Vasarya Therapeutics, to be “very efficient and optimal on our research enterprise.”

But good lab space is hard to come by in Charlottesville, and what exists is spread around, “so you don’t necessarily get the impact of having other startup and tech companies in your space being in close proximity,” adds Barker, who is also Vasarya’s chief scientific officer.

CvilleBioHub hopes to address those problems by creating CvilleBioLab, an accelerator where early-stage companies can spend a year or two performing research while also being mentored by business leaders and advisers who can help “de-risk” the startup process, including navigating issues like intellectual property protection, says Nikki Hastings, executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit. Founded in 2016, CvilleBioHub advocates for and works to build the area’s biotech community.

In March, the organization received a $100,000 GO Virginia grant to support planning for CvilleBioLab. While there’s no timeline for site selection, CvilleBioHub’s real estate partner, Rockville, Maryland-based Scheer Partners, is searching for an existing building to convert. “Ideally, we’d like 15,000 to 20,000 square feet, although we could get started with 5,000,” Hastings says.

Depending on the size, Hastings, the biotech track director at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, estimates spending around $3 million for infrastructure and equipment, with operating costs for staffing, maintenance, and overhead running between $500,000 and $1 million annually. Funding is still being determined, Hastings says.

The facility will include a wet lab and equipment, including refrigerators, ultra-low-temperature freezers for DNA samples and other biological material, incubators, cell culture and DNA analysis tools, and basic lab equipment like microscopes.

The lab’s buildout is expected to take about a year. Companies will apply for a spot, with six to eight startups sharing the facility, though Hastings says CvilleBioHub will use part of the planning grant to “more definitively” determine programming during the summer. A lab director and entrepreneur advisory team will support occupants.

Charlottesville-area researchers who want to spin their work into a startup would benefit from having a formal incubator, says Renna Nouwairi, a Ph.D. candidate in bioanalytical chemistry at U.Va. “It would be a shame for our city and local economy to miss out on opportunities because a startup-friendly infrastructure is not in place.”