Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development is helping university researchers, local businesses, and organizations secure state funding for projects addressing the economic and public health challenges during the COVID-19 crisis.

The office is the regional support organization for GO Virginia, a statewide initiative initially dedicated to creating higher-wage jobs in the commonwealth. Region 2 covers 13 counties and five cities, stretching from the New River Valley to Lynchburg.

A $500,000 GO Virginia grant to Virginia Tech is helping to support full-time COVID-19 analysis positions in the Virginia Tech Schiffert Health Center Molecular Diagnostics Lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and establish an internship pipeline for biomedical technology jobs.

Virginia Tech researchers developed a new COVID-19 test and facilities to help local health departments test patients suspected of having the novel coronavirus — a critical step to slow the pandemic and monitor the spread of the virus in Virginia.

A previous $100,000 GO Virginia grant to the Molecular Diagnostics Lab enabled the launch of the testing program. Between April and September, the laboratory processed more than 32,000 samples for local health departments and Virginia Tech.

Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech, said the most recent grant will be primarily directed at the workforce component of the project.

A portion of the grant will provide paid internships to graduates from local colleges — including Virginia Western Community College and Radford University. Interns will learn to carry out RT-qPCR–based molecular diagnostic analysis of viral RNA for COVID-19.

Other projects in the region receiving funding include the New River Valley Business Continuity Team, a partnership between the New River Valley Regional Commission and the New River Health District-Virginia Department of Health that aims to help people feel at ease when returning to the workplace. In just a few weeks, the team has already provided consultation to firms in all four of the targeted industry sectors for GO Virginia Region 2.

“The services delivered have resulted in companies remaining productive by limiting their downtime during the pandemic,” said Kevin Byrd, executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission.

The Roanoke Regional Partnership received $100,000 in GO Virginia emergency funds for its project to help regional companies in the targeted sectors — advanced manufacturing, food and beverage, technology, and health care — with immediate and long-term recovery.

“This program will enable us to benefit from experts with experience in crisis recovery and facilitation. It will also allow us to make connections that will provide us with what we need to craft a strategy for recovery,” Roanoke Regional Partnership Executive Director Beth Doughty said.

The GO Virginia board also recently approved a mobile app designed to help small businesses assess and improve their readiness to operate in the workplace. The Public Health Readiness Evaluation tool, proposed by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences and led by Matthew Hull in collaboration with Josh Eckstein and Igor Linkov, aims to help small businesses return to normal operations quickly and safely.

The application presents a series of questions designed to assess a business’s readiness to minimize COVID-19 risks. A readiness score helps the business see where it can improve.

“This tool will help the region’s smallest businesses help themselves and increase consumer confidence. The PHRE framework leverages a nanotechnology safety developed 15 years ago and represents a great example of the important interdisciplinary connections between the Office of Economic Development and Virginia Tech research units,” Hull said.

The Office of Economic Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs, was an important player in the inception of GO Virginia. The office accepts proposals for GO Virginia funding on behalf of the Region 2 Council, and its specialists help individuals and organizations develop and evaluate projects.

“The state has approved 100 percent of the Region 2 recommended projects, which I credit to the Office of Economic Development’s review and assistance to those seeking funding,” said Ray Smoot, vice president for finance and treasurer emeritus at Virginia Tech and chair of the Region 2 Council.

“GO Virginia has tried to pivot to be responsive in these changing times,” said John Provo, who leads the Office of Economic Development. “All these projects are examples of the kinds of regional partnerships that are so vital to navigating this crisis.” 

Written by Julia Kell