Gov. Terry McAuliffe talks with Elliot Roth, a 2015 VCU graduate and the founder and CEO of Spira. At center is VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

Gov. McAuliffe speaks in support of life sciences and meets with VCU entrepreneurs

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Innovation and entrepreneurship in the biological sciences are essential for bolstering Virginia’s economy, Gov. Terry McAuliffe told a room of students, faculty, state delegates and entrepreneurs at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park on Monday morning. The governor was at the research park to speak about the important role life sciences play in the state economy and to meet with Virginia Commonwealth University students who have started biotechnology-based companies.

“These are the jobs of the future,” McAuliffe said to a crowd of about 50 who gathered in the lobby of the Biotech One building. “Biotechnology affects everything that we do, from agriculture to medicine.”

The governor was joined by VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., who echoed the support for biotechnological innovation and affirmed VCU’s commitment to cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit in its students.

So many of our young students who are now graduating want to start companies.

“So many of our young students who are now graduating want to start companies,” Rao said. “They are entrepreneurs, they are innovators, they have great ideas and we are providing them with the pathways to turn those ideas into reality.”

One of those students is Michell Pope. Now the CEO of Research Unlimited, Pope graduated from VCU with undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology and a Ph.D. in health psychology. A year before graduating in 2015, she started a research assistance firm that helps connect researchers with potential study participants.

“It is a big challenge in research to get people to want to be a part of the process,” Pope said. “We educate people about research, tell them about the importance of being a part of the process and help them find studies they will be eligible for.”

Michell Pope.
Michell Pope.

Pope was one of the first participants in VCU’s Go For It! program, an entrepreneurial support program for students in the College of Humanities and Sciences. The program provides students with a $5,000 stipend to participate in a three-month intensive program focused on guiding them through the early stages of getting a startup company off the ground.

“VCU helped give us the platform to introduce our business idea,” Pope said.

Also present at the event was Elliot Roth, founder and CEO of the health drink company Spira. Roth started the biotechnology company soon after graduating from the VCU School of Engineering with a degree in biomedical engineering in 2015. Spira produces a health drink using spirulina. Spirulina is blue-green algae that contains a large amount of protein, vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and antioxidants.

“It’s a living probiotic, so it is insanely good for you,” Roth said. He plans to sell bottles for $2-to-$4 at local farmers markets.

Other VCU alumni showcased their startup companies at the event. Karen Gregory-Williams graduated from the VCU School of Business’ Executive MBA program in 2005 and started her microbiological water testing company, Sciengenix Laboratory Inc., in 2013.

“VCU provided me with the business strategies, marketing skills and accounting background I needed to help me start my business,” Gregory-Williams said.

Gregory-Williams has an office at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. While she currently conducts most of her business around Richmond, the native of Charlotte County, Virginia hopes to soon expand to less economically developed parts of the state. Gregory-Williams owns a historic warehouse building in the south central region of Virginia, which she plans to renovate as a multi-use property with apartments, a market and a microbrewery.

“I see business ownership as an opportunity to give back to my community by hiring people as scientists and in other well-paying jobs,” she said.

Karen Gregory-Williams.
Karen Gregory-Williams.


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