Science is not a speed sport. Significant discoveries, inventions, and processes can take years to turn into the therapies, products, and procedures that improve the quality of life for people around the world.
Unlike any other time in modern history, the COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented collaborations on the international science stage, which echoed on the local level with accelerated emerging technologies, exciting discoveries, and new funding pathways. During the pandemic, Prince William County saw significant growth and advancement in the life sciences and biotechnology industry.
Scaling Curiosity, from the Prince William County Department of Economic Development (PWCDED), is a life sciences video channel that explores the county’s more than 25-year history developing a bioscience hub at the heart of Innovation Park in Manassas, Virginia. This video essay explores the life cycle of life science companies, featuring real county businesses owners at all stages of growth.
Building a BioHub from the Ground Up
Covering more than 1500 acres near the center of Prince William County, Innovation Park is home to a range of businesses, including government contractors, research centers, and award-winning entertainment venues. Yet in the mid-1990s, it was just an idea on paper. Originally named "Innovation @ Prince William," county leaders set an intentional focus on building core components for a leading technology cluster.
The anchor relationship began when George Mason University’s (Mason) Science and Technology Campus broke ground in 1997, claiming Northern Virginia’s only university-centered corporate research park. A year later, ATCC located their global headquarters across the street from Mason, bringing federal funding attention and adjacent subcontracting startups in its wake.
From 2000 to 2012, Mason added multiple facilities and institutions that furthered the life sciences ecosystem in Prince William County, including
- NIH/Mason Biomedical Research Labs (BSL-2 & BSL-3);
- Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine; and
- the Institute for Biomedical Innovation with CAP/CLIA Compliant Clinical Proteomics Laboratory.
As young companies began seeing success in Prince William County, such as MediaTech, which was acquired by Corning in 2011, more researchers grew and expanded their ideas to spin out of Mason.
By 2012, Innovation Park’s corporate and governmental tenants spanned beyond the biosciences, engineering, and ICT development verticals, including the FBI’s Northern Virginia Resident Agency, Virginia’s State Forensics Lab, and Nikon Meteorology.
The proximity to Mason also provided easy access to highly skilled talent, including graduate students and interns. The biosciences community became attractive for professional development opportunities, including specialized on-the-job programs in life sciences, medical education, and applied information technology.
Space Making Is Essential to Placemaking
Burgeoning research discoveries have real world implications, and the need for additional wet lab space—and jobs—in Innovation Park became overwhelming by 2012. In a prodigious move, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) worked with PWCDED to lease 10,000 square feet of corporate space located at 9385 Discovery Boulevard from building owners Rinker Design Associates and NAL Research.
Designed to support high-growth life science companies, the Prince William Science Accelerator opened in 2014 and offers access to infrastructure, equipment, expertise, workforce, and startup support services. Geared towards early-stage companies, the facility offers eight private suites that range from 435 to 1,100 square feet as well as six shared wet lab benches at affordable costs for early startups.
More than 20 companies have been accepted to the accelerator since opening in 2014, with six companies graduating and contributing more than 150 employees to the Innovation Park workforce.
Ceres Nanosciences and Serpin Pharma, two original accelerator tenants, graduated into their own private labs and headquarters in Innovation Park. By 2020, several accelerator tenants had grown to mid-size and were ready to expand. Yet separate laboratory space was too expensive and the cost per square foot for BSL-2 space was out of scope for these companies to build and maintain.
Once again, Prince William County saw the unique opportunity to help mid-size life science companies enter and stay in the Northern Virginia economy. PWCDED led the efforts to ensure graduating companies from the successful Prince William Science Accelerator had access to expansion opportunities.
In 2022, the new 30,000 square foot Northern Virginia (NOVA) Bioscience Center opened, offering companies BSL-2 laboratories designed to handle research in pharmaceutical deliveries, immunotherapy, cancer-causing agents and more. Four Prince William Science Accelerator tenants moved to the NOVA Bioscience Center as a result.
The Class A facility features 15 labs, all furnished with cutting-edge equipment and collaborative workspaces as the result of a GO Virginia grant. The suite sizes are flexible and each one includes an office space. In addition to lab space for rent, the center offers shared equipment, conference rooms, free business growth support, and a collaborative life science community.
This is the first of the Scaling Curiosity essays.
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