Several Charlottesville entrepreneurs called on elected officials and developers Thursday to invest in new office and laboratory space to ensure that start-up companies remain in the area.
“We know people in Charlottesville are bright, we know they’ve got lots of good ideas and we know they can set up companies that can grow exponentially,” Martin Chapman, the president of Indoor Biotechnologies said at a forum held by the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council.
“But the critical element that needs to be addressed is space,” he continued.
Chapman said many companies in the region struggle to find offices and laboratories between 2,000 and 10,000 square feet.
“A lot of people think that Charlottesville is on the cusp of doing some really extraordinary things,” said Tim Miano, the co-founder of SP@CE, a company that is seeking to accelerate innovation by creating flexible working environments for other businesses.
Miano said the community needs leadership to solve the problem together. He said the University of Virginia, local government, entrepreneurs and benefactors all have a role to play.
“Each of these groups needs to come to the table and provide something,” Miano said. “You need a core group of dedicated people.”
Chapman said there has been at least $250 million invested in biotech companies in Charlottesville over the last decade. However, he added that a lack of available space could hinder economic growth in the community if companies can’t find room to expand.
“Both our company and HemoShear have spent the past five years trying to find space in Charlottesville where we could relocate,” Chapman said. “And when you do that, it’s a tremendous drain on the company.”
Nikki Hastings of HemoShear, a biotechnology company, agreed.
“We spent five years in a building off of Fifth Street in 8,000 square feet and grew to 30 employees,” she said. “We quickly ran out and recently transitioned to the [old] Martha Jefferson Hospital.”
However, Hastings said, the firm already is beginning to think about where it would go if it needs to expand again.
The problem is not unique to biotech companies.
“Early on in the process, we were struggling to find space,” said Michael Lake, vice president of solutions architecture at WillowTree Apps, a company with more than a hundred employees. “We ended up buying a building and we are looking to expand outside of that as well.”
Miano surveyed 115 entrepreneurial groups in Charlottesville to ask what they needed to be successful. The majority of answers were to have enough space to allow several companies to locate in the same area.
“That problem is entirely solvable in Charlottesville,” Miano said. “It doesn’t require the government but the government certainly can help.”
However, one elected official said the government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers.
“Governments are never good at picking who the good entrepreneurs are,” said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville. “The market finds the entrepreneurs.”
Toscano said he would like to expand the number of tax credits available to high tech companies, possibly by reducing the number available to older industries such as coal production.
Some developers are also seeing an opportunity.
Developer Katurah Roell announced at the event that his company Town Properties is moving forward with building 37,500 square feet of office and research space on Roosevelt Brown Boulevard within walking distance of the University of Virginia Medical Center.
“We became aware that there was a need for space here in town near the university,” Roell said. “Companies had talked to me about spaces that they might need.”
Roell said he is able to advance the project because he does not need a rezoning or any design review. He added that the SoHo Technology Center already has two tenants lined up and construction is slated to begin next year.
On the topic of zoning, Chapman suggested the city changing its zoning to encourage the redevelopment of industrial areas such as the Harris Street area.
“There’s a lot of scope for redevelopment in that neighborhood, but I just don’t think we have a plan to actually go through it and provide incentives,” Chapman said.
He also announced his company plans to open a 12,500 square-foot office and laboratory on Harris Street.
Chapman said there are lots of opportunities for sites in neighboring Albemarle County to be redeveloped for businesses as well.
“Why can’t we just convert the whole of Albemarle Square into a science park?” Chapman said. “That’s going to be the best use of that space.”