Virginia Catalyst Strives to Advance Life Sciences in the State


Virginia, which is part of the BioSpace Hotbed region known as BioCapital, is home to an $8 billion biopharma market that employs more than 26,545 people.

“Virginia is really doing it,” Mike Grisham, president and chief executive officer of Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation, better known as Virginia Catalyst, an organization dedicated to advancing life sciences in the commonwealth.

Virginia has seen the success of other states that have become successful biohubs and has been positioning itself to become a key linchpin in the life sciences industry along the eastern shore of the United States. Around 2012, Grisham said government officials wanted to see how Virginia stacked up against the greater Boston area, which had become the leading hub for biotech and pharma on the East Coast of the United States. At the time, Grisham said, they learned a sobering reality – Virginia wasn’t on the radar as far as life sciences were concerned. They set out to change that.

Grisham said funding began to flow from the commonwealth as well as research-focused universities. One of the key changes implemented to boost Virginia’s profile in life sciences was to foster a sense of community between the universities. In Virginia, Grisham said the universities and colleges were “notoriously independent” and didn’t collaborate with other schools in the area. The government created Virginia Catalyst in order to create jobs and bring additional life sciences funding into the commonwealth.  The mission of the Catalyst is to “create competitive critical mass through collaboration,” Grisham said.

“The critical mass achieved by these collaborations provides Virginia with competitive advantages over other states and has resulted in significant outside capital being invested in Virginia to finance the commercialization of Virginia’s innovations, while creating high-paying jobs for the commonwealth,” Grisham said.

When the Catalyst was created, Grisham explained there was a requirement for investigators from different universities to work collaboratively and also with partners from industry. That helped open up opportunities for private investors to support projects, he added. With the formation of the Catalyst, they can now provide millions of dollars to help finance projects. So far, the Catalyst has provided about $18 million to finance 22 different projects, Grisham said. That $18 million in Catalyst funding has been matched by about $25 million in private funds, he added. Some of the projects have gone on to raise additional capital in support of the programs. Grisham said that extra follow-on funding has amounted to about $150 million.

“We’ve moved collaboration to a whole new level with the universities working together and with the industry,” Grisham said.

The most recent round of funding announced by the Catalyst amounted to $2.1 million to fund four different projects, including the development of a liquid biopsy collection device for cancer diagnostics being developed by Ceres Nanosciences, Inc. of Manassas. The $600,000 awarded through the Catalyst received matching funds of $1.2 million from GreyBird Ventures. Ceres also recently licensed technology from George Mason University for a new Lyme disease test, Grisham said.

Robbie Barbero, chief business officer of Ceres, called the Catalyst an invaluable program for the biosciences industry in Virginia. Support from the Catalyst is “dramatically accelerating our product development efforts by providing non-dilutive funding and a mechanism through which we can leverage the world-class clinical and translational research expertise of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and George Mason University.”

McLean, Virginia-based Perthera Inc. received $500,000 and $1 million in matching funds to support development of its precision oncology platform. Todd Bauer, a professor of surgery at the University of Virginia and project team lead at Perthera, said the company has the most advanced platform for a precision oncology approach to treating pancreatic cancer. The funding from the Virginia Catalyst will enable Perthera to advance patient outcomes, Bauer said in a statement.

Looking at the success the Virginia Catalyst and the companies it supports have so far enjoyed, particularly in being able to raise millions of dollars in matching funds, is a “real world” way to measure success.

As the pages of the calendar continue to flip this year, Grisham said he anticipates seeing an acceleration of public/private partnerships that will achieve “phenomenal breakthroughs” in human health.

“The state is committed to being a leader in translational medicines and is doing so through these public/ private partnerships,” Grisham said.

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