By Karen Vernon
Home to more than 75 companies working at the front lines of life sciences and biomedical innovation, CvilleBioHub in Charlottesville is all about connections.
“We saw an opportunity to help [companies] grow and retain those coming out of [the University of Virginia] or that were already here,” says Dr. Nikki Hastings, CvilleBioHub’s co-founder and executive director. “We work to connect them to the resources they need.”
The biotechnology industry in Charlottesville and Central Virginia is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the region. The industry’s strength lies in its vibrant talent pipeline, robust angel networks that support early stages of development, and assets such as the new Paul and Diane Manning Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Virginia.
AgroSpheres, a company that aims to transform agriculture by producing environmentally friendly crop health products, announced in 2023 that it was investing $25 million to expand its presence in the region, with the addition of a research and development facility.
“We’ve got all the right elements – the university supporting new innovation, the adjacent health system bringing new technologies and running clinical trials,” she says. “It’s an end-to-end activity, from concept to execution.”
Hastings says CvilleBioHub is a bridge between the university and commercial opportunities, and many partnerships and network organizations are spokes from that hub.
Precision Medicine in Charlotteville
“We could have formed this company anywhere, but we chose Charlottesville because of the great community that’s here,” says Dr. Amrie Grammer, co-founder, president and chief scientific officer of AMPEL BioSolutions.
A precision medicine company, AMPEL focuses on disease management, especially for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
“Ultimately, it’s about predicting oncoming, unexpected changes in disease,” Grammer says. “It’s all about the right drug for the right person at the right time.”
AMPEL’s first product, LuGENE, a blood test for lupus, is launching this year. Coming soon after is DermaGENE, a skin biopsy test to help doctors identify autoimmune dermatological conditions, and WellGENE, a blood test to evaluate a patient’s inflammation range. Several more products are in development, including CardioGENE, a blood test that can detect risk factors for early heart attack and stroke.
Tapping into New Frontiers
Another company, ZielBio, focuses on discovering and developing novel treatments for patients with cancer. “We use a proprietary drug discovery platform, ZielFind,” says Alan Bash, CEO. “Our lead program is focused on a novel target known as cancer-specific plectin (CSP).”
CSP is expressed on the surface of cancer cells in solid tumors such as pancreatic, ovarian or bile duct cancer.
“By developing an antibody drug that can find and attach to CSP on the surface of the cell, the ZielBio team was able to identify a potential new way to attack these cancers,” Bash says. “CSP represents a potential new paradigm of treatment. While there have been incredible advances in some types of cancer, too many patients still face a poor outcome. We are trying to think differently, and are working every day on how to help these patients.”
Bash says a location in Central Virginia affords the company the opportunity to tap into a highly educated, technically skilled and motivated workforce. “We employ scientists at all levels of their careers, and our culture is one of inclusion, curiosity and dedication,” he says.
Originally co-founded by a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Virginia, ZielBio has a history of working with academia.
Fueling Innovation in Central Virginia
Caretaker Medical is a rapidly growing digital health company in Charlottesville. The company created VitalStream – billed as the world’s only wearable wireless patient monitor with FDA clearance to measure continuous “beat-by-beat” blood pressure, cardiac function and advanced hemodynamics with a simple finger sensor and wristwatch.
The monitor allows clinicians to see early indications of deteriorating patient health, enabling faster treatment decisions.
“Instead of enduring blind spots between blood pressure readings or using traditional invasive catheters and wires that confine patients to bedside equipment, our wireless VitalStream monitor untethers patients from the bed, enabling full patient mobility with continuous remote monitoring anywhere in the world,” says Jeff Pompeo, co-founder, president and CEO.
The company has transitioned from research and development to the commercial phase, launching its product with a focus on delivering value to clinicians, patients and the health care system.
Pompeo, who has lived in Charlottesville for 25 years, says the community is a special place.
“This is a great place to raise a family, launch a med-tech business and collaborate with brilliant people,” he says. “We’ve got excellent schools, a dynamic workforce and an entrepreneurial ecosystem that fuels innovation.”