The Build Back Better Regional Challenge was a billion-dollar United States Economic Development Administration program funded by the American Rescue Plan Act. Despite a valiant effort and designation as a national finalist, a Virginia Tech-led coalition of 50 Southwestern Virginia organizations did not win the challenge and the millions in federal funding it would have brought.
The proposal launched by Tech built on areas where the university and its affiliates and partners are already leaders: the development of automated and electric vehicles, and drone delivery. The fact that the proposal did not strike gold when the winners were announced on September 2 mainly demonstrates that nothing is guaranteed when the competition is fierce.
Notable: A Richmond-Petersburg-based project was one of the winners, the Advanced Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Cluster, which officials at partner organization Virginia State University say will “expand the nation’s supply chain for essential medicines and critical active pharmaceutical ingredients” – that’s what Virginia did get at least about $53 million of that billion dollars.
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Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, cited Tech’s run for this challenge as an example of the kind of organizational experience needed to compete for one of the 20 regional tech hubs set to be created by the CHIPS and Science Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on August 9. The law earmarks $10 billion for these hubs, which do not need to be connected to manufacturing semiconductor chips.
The White House released a statement touting these hubs as the product of partnerships between state and local governments, universities, businesses, unions and community organizations that will spur innovation in areas such as clean energy and climate change. ‘artificial intelligence.
Discreet but undeniably clear, these hubs are intended to ground high-tech development in areas far from the urban coastal towns where these industries have been hyper-concentrated.
Not just buzzwords
The founder, chairman, president and former CEO of one of the New River Valley’s high-tech companies sees an opportunity for Southwest Virginia in the development of precision agriculture, which plans to exploit the land using state-of-the-art technology that makes last-minute adjustments to multiple plots of soil in a single field. This allows many different types of crops to be grown on subdivided “microsites” instead of uniformly and mechanically caring for a few crops on one large plot. The techniques can also be applied to animal husbandry and forestry.
Entrepreneur Steve Critchfield said his downtown Pulaski climate technology company, MOVA Technologies, is focused on precision agriculture, which he says is designated under the CHIPS and Science Act as an area, for so to speak, to support.
MOVA recently received a $174,000 Small Business Innovation Research Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to fund testing of a filtration system designed to capture harmful chemical emissions from agricultural processes and not only clean the air of pollutants, but separate and recycle them into forms that can be reused or resold. MOVA is developing this system through a public-private partnership with Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture – the company’s fourth collaboration with Virginia Tech.
“Climate tech, sustainable green tech is no longer a buzzword. It’s a means to economic growth and our future,” Critchfield said. He hopes to see similar companies drawn to the area by MOVA’s work, ambitions similar to the Roanoke area’s dreams for the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
Develop a growth center
Critchfield noted that the technology hubs of the CHIPS Act align with recommendations made in a 2019 report by the Brookings Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
The authors of “The Case for Growth Centers” argued that the concentration of high-tech innovation in a handful of large coastal cities has deepened our country’s economic and political divides, with 90% of growth from 2005 to 2017 in just five cities, the report says.
This imbalance did not only apply to technology R&D industries. The study showed that all other industrial sectors benefited from their proximity to the growth of the innovation sector – an economic boon that most of the country did not have access to.
To increase economic opportunity and reduce divisions, the study called for the federal government to “bring together a significant set of federal innovation inputs and supports for scaling the innovation sector.” in metropolitan areas far from existing technology hubs”. Additionally, the report asserts that “many metropolitan areas in most regions have the potential to become one of America’s next vibrant innovation hubs.”
One might find it disheartening that none of these potential areas identified in the report are located in Virginia. Critchfield, however, said it’s no secret that Southwest Virginia has that potential.
“If we had been where we are now when the report came out, we should have been there,” he said. In an area that encompasses Botetourt, Roanoke, Montgomery and Pulaski counties, other counties to the west and east, and the cities and towns within them, there is a lot of potential for attraction of technology hubs, such as the Virginia Tech Carilion healthcare partnership, the Virginia Tech Center for Enterprise Research, and “a larger educated workforce and population.”
Critchfield’s optimism and enthusiasm are contagious. As with the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, a tech hub for Southwest Virginia can’t be considered a sure thing, but a group effort carried out with its attitude surely has a fighting chance. And even if we don’t land a hub, the potential to evolve into a high-tech growth center will only grow.