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Group focuses on ‘Building the new Northern Virginia economy’

Times Staff Photo/Tara S. Donaldson
Barry DuVal, president and CEO of
the Virginia Chamber of Commerce,
discusses 'Building the New Northern
Virginia Economy' during the Prince
William Chamber of Commerce's
economic development summit.
If the head of Virginia's Chamber of Commerce is right, Northern Virginia, and Prince William County specifically, are poised for an economic coup.

Last week, Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the state chamber, laid out the five components a region needs to develop the economy of the future: connectivity to the outside world, a competent workforce, intellectual capacity, an entrepreneurial spirit and a pro-business climate.

With its proximity to interstates and airports, its colleges and universities and its pro-business political leaders, the region – and Prince William, are set, he said.

DuVal was speaking as part of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce's economic summit, “Building the New Northern Virginia Economy,” which was held May 20 at the Hylton Center for the Performing Arts.

One of the keys to economic success, Duval said, is remembering that “Regions grow and prosper along economic boundaries, not political boundaries.”

In addition to collaboration between political and business leaders, Duval said, education and research institutions also need to get involved, creating a business-politics-education triumvirate to advance the region's economic interests.

To that end, the chamber had chosen panelists representing key components of the new economy. Sam Hill, is provost of Northern Virginia Community College’s Woodbridge Campus; Scott Martin represents George Mason University’s Serious Game Institute; Ross Dunlap is the founder of Ceres Nanosciences and Del. Jackson Miller (R-50th) represents Manassas in the House of Delegates.

Regional Center for Workforce Education and Training
Hill focused on the new Regional Center for Workforce Education and Training, which is under construction on the Woodbridge Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

The anchor program will be cybersecurity, “because we all know what's happening in the business community, in the defense industry in we're also equidistant from Fort Belvoir and Quantico,” he said.

In discussing the college's new center, Hill told a story about an economic development problem that had occurred in Newport News.

The contracting giant Siemens had announced plans to leave the area, Hill said, because it couldn't find enough qualified employees in the area.

The city's mayor, Duval, went to Thomas Nelson Community College President Robert Templin looking for help and in response, Templin launched a workforce development program to train students for careers in the industries the area hoped to attract and keep.

Duval is now the head of the state chamber and was the keynote speaker at the May 20 summit.

Templin went on to become president of Northern Virginia Community College.

The message, Hill said, is that colleges need to “support economic development” and that's the goal of his workforce center.

Virginia Serious Game Institute

There's gaming and then there's serious gaming.

Scott Martin is into the latter kind.

As founding director of the Virginia Serious Game Institute, Martin explained that the difference between gaming and serious gaming is education.

“Serious gaming has more than just entertainment,” he said. A serious game is entertaining, but it's purpose is educational or research-based.

For example, he said, serious military games not only help soldiers prepare for combat, they also collect and aggregate data from players to provide valuable feedback about performance.

Another example is Fairfax fire and rescue personnel, who use serious games to help train.

The VSGI has three components: applied research, community outreach and a start-up “Excelerator,” which is basically an educational class for entire companies.

“It's an incubator but it's also an accelerator,” Martin said.

Companies meet periodic milestones during a 12-month course and then “graduate” with VSGI credentials.

The program began with seven start-up companies and will have 14 by August.

The VSGI got off the ground with the help of state and local funding.

Miller, the majority whip in the House of Delegates, was one of the key backers of the program's funding.
Asked what made a conservative Republican decide to push funding for a gaming program, Miller replied “I don't know why a conservative Republican would not do that.”

“This is a situation where the money is ... going to give us a great dividend on the money that the taxpayers have invested,” he said, adding that the VSGI has met all of its economic development benchmarks promised to the General Assembly.

Veteran's Care Center
Miller also touted the Veteran's Care Center recently approved to be built on Ashton Avenue in Manassas.

“It's quite frankly something that's due,” he said. “Virginia has one of the largest percentages of veterans in the country but we have some of the fewest veteran care centers in the country.”

The facility, which is being paid for almost entirely with federal and state funding, is a long-term health facility for older veterans and for younger vets who have been injured – particularly those suffering from brain trauma.

The 120-bed facility will be staffed with all kinds of local workers, from low-level employees to engineers, nutritionists, psychologists and medical specialists.

“That is a significant economic development impact,” he said.

While Miller generally maintains that it's business, not politicians, who make jobs, in this case, he said, it was the politicians.

The reason is that many localities wanted to be home to the new Veteran's Care Center so getting it approved in Prince William took some serious politicking.

“We were able to put it there based on politician's decisions, not the business sector's decisions,” he said.

Miller also cautioned that future economic development coups would be made more difficult if the Bi-County Parkway is not built.

The controversial highway proposed to link Manassas to Dulles is a “bloodline” much desired by new industry, he said.

“If we try to land any new big high-tech companies, they're going to want infrastructure and bloodline,” he said. “The Bi-County Parkway is exactly the type of bloodline and bloodflow they're going to want.”

Ceres Nanosciences
One of the high-tech companies already ensconced in Prince William is Ceres Nanosciences, a biotech firm that partners with GMU.

Dunlap, the company's founder and CEO, discussed his lead product, an antigen test that assists in the diagnosis of Lyme disease.

The test was released to patients in Northern Virginia earlier this year and Dunlap said it represents a breakthrough in nanoscience testing.

“So many diagnostic tests were unreliable or expensive,” he said.

Ceres licensed a nanopartical that “let's us capture substances out of biological fluids and substances no one was able to capture before,” he said.

While the Ceres nanopartical is being used to test for Lyme and soon for ebola and tuberculosis, Dunlap said it has a more commercial potential as well.

Citing Apple watches and other fitness gear to monitor and track health, Dunlap said the trick is getting a person's biological data from their body into the device.

Nanoparticles, he said, will be the key to development of that technology.

“The end game is to develop products, to develop our company, to get a return on our investment,” he said.
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