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VBI Launches Affiliates Program with More Corporate Research Partners in Mind

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Eager to attract more corporate research partners, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech has launched a program designed to develop new academic-industry partnerships, as well as new opportunities for research and information exchange.

The VBI Industrial Affiliates Program allows businesses to help the bioinformatics institute by advancing its work in its four research programs — network dynamics and simulation science and policy informatics; cyberinfrastructure; biosystems; and medical informatics and systems.

"Right now, we have one active member, and are in the final stages of negotiating with a handful of others," Stan Hefta, director of the industrial affiliates program, told GenomeWeb Daily News. "The partners tend to be both biotech companies as well as large pharmaceutical companies."

He would not name the active member, saying it did not wish to have its identity divulged.

The program offers two sponsorship levels. For an annual $25,000 gift, "Gold Partner" members receive access to non-proprietary information produced by VBI, to the institute's facilities, to participation in discussions with faculty members and students involving research activities, and to events held at the institute's 189-seat conference center and other meeting spaces.

Gold Partner members can also submit suggestions to the Research Advisory Panel, which recommends the research scope for the institute; and attend the annual meeting of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Futures Roundtable, which discusses the strategic goals of the institute's scientific program, as well as their implementation and related scientific and logistical issues.

The program's $50,000 "Platinum Partner" level offers all Gold benefits, plus early licensing access to confidential research information prior to public disclosure, as well as the ability to join the research advisory panel and help select annual research program projects.

Hefta said Platinum members enjoy another advantage: They can earmark up to 80 percent of their annual gift, or $40,000, to support a graduate student fellowship to explore a research topic relevant to the institute's areas of focus. Members can suggest work to be performed under the fellowship, as long as VBI deems it consistent with its research program.

"Industry likes that. They like to give money to support the development of educational possibilities with people that they might be employing in the future," Hefta said. "We're using this program to help better understand what industry wants and to provide to them what they want."

Hefta also directs VBI's biosystems program, which employs genomics and proteomics technologies among other tools to focus on host-pathogen-environment interactions and inflammation.

VBI — which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next month — established the industrial affiliates program at a time when its total amount in active awards jumped during the past fiscal year compared with the previous two, thanks to a surge in NIH funding due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and a large one-time award from the agency.

VBI recorded $120.8 million during the 2009-10 fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the institute's 2010 Annual Report from the Office of the Vice President for Research. That compares with active awards totals of $94.7 million in 2008-09, and $97.2 million in 2007-08, according to annual reports for those years.

Revenue from industry is a tiny portion — just $105,172 in 2008-09 — of VBI's grant and contract revenue, which comes mainly from government funding agencies. During 2009-10, NIH was the top source of active research funding awards at almost $60.5 million — almost double the $34.2 million of a year earlier — while the US Department of Defense accounted for just under $34 million, virtually flat from the previous year's $33.9 million; and National Science Foundation actually dipped year to year, from just over $16 million in 2008-09 to $15.4 million in 2009-10.

The 2009-10 figure includes the largest-ever one-time federal award in the history of Virginia Tech — a five-year, $27,670,448 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases contract to the CyberInfrastructure Group to support infectious disease research worldwide, by integrating information on pathogens, providing resources and tools to scientists, and helping researchers analyze genomic, proteomic, and other data from infectious disease research.

Also in FY 2009-10, VBI's extramural research expenses fell to $15.3 million, Hefta said, down from $16.9 million in 2008-09, but still above the just over $14 million recorded by the institute in 2007-08. The decrease reflected heightened efforts to contain overhead costs, he said.

"The industrial affiliates program is really not a substitute for federal grants, the main ways we receive funding," Hefta added. "The program is more geared to establishing relationships with industry, so that we can both broaden our funding base, but also better understand what the research needs of industry [are], and tailor our programs to meet those needs."

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