College of Science and Mathematics

Policy Aids Biotech Industry

Supply And Demand

Policy Aids Biotech Industry

Leaders Discuss What Helps Attract, Retain Business



— The solutions to many of life’s problems, Jeff Gallagher said Monday, will be found by biotechnologists.

Industry leaders often say they help feed, heal and fuel the world, said the CEO of the Virginia Biotechnology Association. Those needs will continue to grow, so biotechnology companies must gear up to meet global demand.

“We have to figure out,” Gallagher said, “how to unleash the private sector.”

He made his remarks while kicking off the James Madison University and Shenandoah Valley Biotech Showcase. About 50 state and local business leaders, college officials and students attended the event, held to highlight the region’s biotech resources.

Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said he’s promoted biotechnology interests in the legislature because the industry’s average salary is $77,000, 50 percent greater than the average of all other industries.

Government officials can’t create such jobs, he said, but they can promote policies
that help provide the environment necessary to attract and retain them.

“We need to provide a level and open playing field with minimal restraints,” Landes said.

George Anas, director of economic development for Rockingham County, said he thinks the region is on the verge of becoming a small hub for biotech interests. It won’t become what Boston is to the industry, but it can compete in a niche such as agriculture.

“I think we’re at a tipping point,” he
said. “The assets and resources we have in this region are phenomenal. We’ve just got to do a better job of marketing what we have here.”

Two of the morning’s presenters are succeeding with at biotechnology businesses.

Sonny Meyerhoeffer, president and CEO of Eastern BioPlastics, explained how his Mount Crawford company is finding and marketing new uses for
chicken feathers.

The company started in the bioplastics, shifted its focus to absorbents and recently added stormwater filtration to its portfolio. EBP, he said, has spent $6 million on research and development and has three patents with a fourth pending.

After marketing its absorbents for some time and adding stormwater filtration to the mix, Meyerhoeffer told the attendees that business has picked up recently.

“We turned a lot of corners starting in July of this year,” he said.

Other uses could be ready to market soon. Meyerhoeffer said the company is working on a fabric made from his company’s processed feathers, called “Feather Intermediate,” and its insulating properties also can be leveraged.

Companies in the industrial absorbent, bioplastics, filtration, insulation and other spaces identified as potential Feather Intermediate uses totaled $32 billion in global sales in 2014 and are projected to reach $46.8 billion by 2019. He said Eastern BioPlastics can be very successful by capturing only a small part of those markets.

SRI Shenandoah Valley, a division of SRI International, is another biotech company that’s found success locally.

Tom Voss, director of its center for infectious diseases, said scientists at its facility off Valley Pike just north of Harrisonburg are doing research and development for clients ranging from startups to government agencies to major pharmaceutical companies. He said he researches drugs to counter lethal viruses, funguses and toxins.

SRI has had 40 to 50 interns from JMU’s biotechnology program — the only such undergraduate degree program in Virginia — over the years and found them to be well prepared to enter the scientific work environment, Voss said.

Biotechnology breakthroughs aren’t just coming from the private sector. JMU instructors and students are doing groundbreaking work in multiple areas.

Biology professor Michael Renfroe said he’s been involved in studies of bacteria that promote plant growth, which can increase production and help fight fungal pathogens; synthetic seed development; and tissue-culture propagation of high-value plants that can result in a single leaf being propagated into 100 or more plants.

He’s also studied antioxidants in wines and herbs. Among his findings is that herb leaves higher levels of antioxidants the closer they are to the bottom of a plant.

But Renfroe is most enthused about JMU’s pending work with industrial hemp. The school is partnering with a few local farmers to grow and harvest the crop on a production scale with traditional agriculture equipment, meaning the project will provide data that can be translated to prospective farmers.

The U.S., he said, is the only industrialized country in the world in which the crop can’t be produced commercially yet because it’s classified as a drug.

“There are whole new industries that can be developed,” he said, “if we can get these crops onto the market.”

Contact Vic Bradshaw at 574 6279 or

Last Updated: Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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