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As Launch Nears, Ignite Institute Eyes 'Opportunities' In and Outside Virginia

This is an updated version of a report originally published April 22, adding comment from Montgomery County and a portion of an earlier Inova statement.

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) —Days after Maryland's Montgomery County said it is working to attract a startup research center that focuses on translation of personalized medicine discoveries — and which originally planned to open in Virginia using $25 million in state economic incentives — the president and CEO of the Ignite Institute said it is moving ahead with its launch, while raising the possibility of locating outside of the Old Dominion state.

"Our first goal is scaling the operations up and developing new diagnostics/companion diagnostics and therapies for common complex genetic disease at scale. We are currently evaluating a number of opportunities, both geographical and partnership-based," Dietrich Stephan told GenomeWeb Daily News today.

Virginia lawmakers and Gov. Robert McDonnell have already approved, near unanimously, $25 million in economic incentives for Ignite, despite the state's $4 billion budget deficit. In return for the funding, Ignite has promised to create at least 415 jobs over five years.

However, Fairfax County — which once envisioned issuing $150 million in Economic Development Authority industrial revenue bonds toward a permanent headquarters for the institute — has joined a healthcare provider in retreating from earlier funding commitments for the project.

Fairfax's about-face came after Inova Health Systems backtracked from an earlier commitment of $25 million over five years to Ignite, citing in a statement earlier this month "the scope and scale of the project and the time needed for capital development in the current market." Inova, northern Virginia's largest not-for-profit healthcare provider, originally planned to offer its patients access to new diagnostics and treatments developed by the center.

"We are evaluating, in the next weeks, whether the partners who had committed to fund the start-up operations can be replaced to benefit the Virginia economy," Stephan said. "We have a commitment to the legislators (and the taxpayers who will fund this legislation) who took the initiative to invest public sector dollars to build a new leg of the Virginia economy.

"The institute takes its commitments very seriously," Stephan added.

Stephan's remarks constituted Ignite's first comment in the two days since the Fairfax Times newspaper quoted Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Isiah (Ike) Leggett, as saying: "We are interested in Ignite and have reached out to them."

Speaking with GWDN on Friday, Lacefield would not offer additional information: "We're interested in taking them away from Fairfax, and we're working on it. That's all I can say."

Ignite is serious, Stephan added, about sticking to earlier plans to decide on a permanent headquarters during this quarter, then launch from there its previously-announced research programs and gene sequencing partnership with Life Technologies. The institute has agreed to buy 100 new SOLiD 4 sequencing systems, creating the largest next-generation genomic sequencing facility in North America.

Stephan has said Ignite's research focus will start with neurological and mental health disorders when the facility opens, then expand at a later point to oncology and pediatrics, then to cardiovascular and metabolic disease.

Ignite's plans include building out between 20,000 and 40,000 square feet of laboratory space in phases at the state-run Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, Va. The institute now occupies a few thousand square feet of offices at CIT, an incubator for tech-based businesses.

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