A Roanoke family is giving $50 million to Virginia Tech to be used to attract top-ranked scientists to its Roanoke research center and to hasten the pace of the region’s economic growth.
Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Gov. Ralph Northam plan Thursday morning to announce the gift from Heywood and Cynthia Fralin and the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust during a ceremony on the grounds of Tech’s health sciences and technology campus in Roanoke. The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute will now be called the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
Heywood Fralin said he was not aware that the $50 million gift is twice the amount of Tech’s previous largest single donation, given a decade ago by engineering alumnus Bill Goodwin to build Goodwin Hall. That was not his motivation.
“I came up with the size based on what I felt I could do. I wanted to make a maximum gift that was a challenge to me and to the trust because I thought it was important to the community. And I thought it could benefit everyone, and it would have a lasting impact that would help to change the future of the Roanoke Valley and the surrounding area,” Fralin said in a Wednesday interview at the research center.
“I want to be a model to everyone. Everyone needs to step up and contribute to the best of their abilities because we are only going to be as successful as we all make it.”
Fralin said he believes the academic health center created a decade ago by Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic will substantially change the region’s economy.
“I’ve told governors this. I’ve told legislators this: I don’t think there is an economic development project in Virginia that will be more successful than this one,” he said. “That’s a large statement. I hope I don’t have to take it back.
“But I believe that. I think there is a danger in people not understanding how great it can be and in not understanding they have to participate.”
Sands said the gift will quicken the pace for Tech to expand the health sciences and technology campus, which is expected to bring thousands of faculty and students to Roanoke. The research institute opened in 2010 and shares a building with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
By 2016, the research institute was full, and the state, Tech and Carilion partnered to construct a new building to double its size.
Tech said it would move some of its biomedical engineering and neuroscience programs to Roanoke, and a part of its veterinary school that tests developing drugs and devices on animals that suffer from the same diseases as people.
Tech, Carilion and Virginia have put $90 million into construction and equipment for the building. The gift from the Fralins will be used for packages to lure top-notch scientists and their staffs.
The campus is part of a developing innovation corridor that runs along Jefferson Street and Williamson Road to downtown.
An economist at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center in May said that the economic benefit of the health sciences campus alone would grow from $214 million today to $462.2 million within eight years, and that the second building would create 828 new jobs by 2026. The mean annual salary at the institute is $90,000.
With the gift, the campus could fill out in three to five years instead of eight to 10, and require more land and buildings.
Fralin, chairman of Medical Facilities of America, in 1993 gave up practicing law when his oldest brother, Horace, died of cancer and left the younger Fralin to run his business and charitable trust. He also was appointed to fill Horace’s term on Virginia Tech’s board of visitors.
“One of the greatest experiences in my life was serving on that board of visitors,” he said. Through it, he said, he came to know Tech’s leadership, understand higher education and form relationships with business leaders.
Since then he has also served on the board of visitors for his alma mater, the University of Virginia, and he is chairman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. He has known well the last nine governors and many influential legislators, and he has held leadership roles in business alliances.
Fralin said that before his brother died, they talked about the trust’s missions and that its gifts should be game-changers.
“He also wanted the gifts to benefit the majority of the citizens in the Roanoke Valley,” he said. “This fits that model greatly.”
“To have Heywood recognize with his 30,000-foot view the connections between higher education and our research universities and the economy, and to have him recognize that the best investment his family could make in the future of Roanoke, Southwest Virginia and the commonwealth is to help us attract talent and retain talent at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, is really quite a statement,” Sands said.
“We realize we have our work cut out for us. Now that we have the resources, we need to go out and attract that talent, and that’s what Michael Friedlander does so well. He’s ready to go, so it’s exciting.”
Friedlander, founding director of the institute and Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, said that Fralin several years ago invited him to speak to a group of businessmen, none of whom understood biomedicine.
Fralin quickly became interested in, and then impressed by, their achievements.
He said the National Institutes of Health, which funds much of the country’s research, awards grants to fewer than 10 percent of applicants.
“Here the acceptance rate is 29 percent, and it could go as high as 34 percent this year,” he said. “It’s off the charts. It’s unheard of, and there is only one reason. The quality of the research here. They are making game-changing, life-changing discoveries on a regular basis. That kind of excellence can only bring extraordinary results.”
Fralin spends a couple of hours every Wednesday morning at the research institute, coaching researchers — or fussing, as he says — on how to commercialize their discoveries and spin off companies. So far, four companies have been created. Fralin expects that pace to increase quickly, too.
He and Friedlander have traveled across the country to a number of academic health centers, and Fralin said he has become convinced that this will drive the Roanoke Valley’s economy.
“This enterprise needs a lot of money. Hundreds of millions have already been spent by the commonwealth, Virginia Tech and Carilion,” Fralin said. “We have one building with a medical school and a research institute and a second under construction. Just to equip it will take $54 million, and that doesn’t include hiring world-class researchers.”
Friedlander said Fralin wanted to know how much it would take to bring in the talent — he estimates $150 million to $200 million — and about the role of philanthropy in supporting academic health centers.
“In other places I’ve been, if you launch something like this with $10 million or $20 million, it’s considered great. If you launch with $50 million, at some of the best institutions in the country, people would be head over heels with excitement. And that’s how I feel. My head is over my heels or heels over my head — whatever the expression, I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
When the partners announced the institute in 2007, the nation was in the midst of the Great Recession. NIH funding was being cut, as were research programs at academic health centers across the country.
Friedlander was charged with recruiting 25 to 30 research teams. About a third of them were senior researchers well known in their fields. The other two-thirds were young people just off their fellowships at some of the country’s best universities. He has often credited Tech and Carilion’s commitment to build in a time of contraction with helping to land some of the brightest minds in particular fields.
But the recruitment climate has changed. NIH budgets are on the rise, others institutions are investing in their programs, and those initial junior Roanoke researchers are now mid-career scientists with discoveries, publications and invitations to speak. They are ripe to be picked off.
Friedlander said the Fralin family’s gift will help retain them and boost recruitment.
“When I’m talking to Person X in California about coming to Roanoke, they see that story. They understand it’s growing the whole enterprise, and that gets them excited about the place. I can’t tell you the intangible value of this transformational gift by Heywood and Cynthia Fralin and the Fralin Trust in helping us recruit people. It will be powerful. I guarantee it.”
Friedlander will be recruiting physician-scientists, researchers who also have medical degrees and who will see patients.
The institute and medical school have been credited with helping Carilion attract specialists and subspecialists who otherwise would not have come to Roanoke.
“This gift will be another launch that will take us to another level,” said Carilion Clinic CEO Nancy Agee. “It really creates in everyone’s mind the gravity of which we are changing things here for the better. Not only is it that we are changing health care and education and research, but we’re collectively facilitating economic development in our region.”
Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, said the region has lagged behind other communities in developing a research institute and innovation corridor.
“This gift is rocket fuel to leapfrogging ahead. It brings a lot of attention to what is going on here. That’s good for Virginia Tech and for the Roanoke region and good for global visibility,” she said.
The high-wage jobs will have an effect in the community, and the additional people will require housing, retail and other services to support them.
“The story is bigger than what happens to the scientific research and the work at the research institute. The best example is, look at the Bridges development,” she said of the housing and retail complex near the campus. “There will be other endeavors that have nothing to do with the science.”
Fralin said the commonwealth, Tech and Carilion Clinic are heavily invested in the venture that began a decade ago.
“If nobody gave a nickel, Virginia Tech and Carilion will be successful,” he said. “What we are talking about is the measure of success. And the more that localities do, and the more interest of people who provide gifts to the academic health center, the better it’s going to be and the faster it’s going to grow.
“If you want to look at it in pure selfish terms, we are only helping ourselves. Every dollar we invest is helping ourselves. We are making a better place for our children and grandchildren.”
Fralin hopes the gift serves as a catalyst for the community to prepare for growth and understand land use will change.
“They are going to have to think outside the box. If they want to leave this place better for their children and their grandchildren they’re going to have to understand everything cannot stay the same. It’s not possible. You cannot grow and not have change,” he said. “This is an opportunity that is not going to come along every year, every 10 years, even every century. So it’s up to them.”