Chandra Briggman

Chandra Briggman is president and CEO of Activation Capital, an independent authority that supports life sciences and advanced technology companies and entrepreneurship in the Richmond area. In this role, she also oversees the VA Bio+Tech Park, a 34-acre life sciences and emerging technologies community in downtown Richmond, as its president. VEDP Interim President and CEO Jason El Koubi spoke with Briggman about her organization’s mission and activities, the pharmaceutical cluster emerging in Richmond and Petersburg, and the nuances of supporting life sciences investment during a global pandemic.

Jason El Koubi: Give us a quick rundown of Activation Capital and the VA Bio+Tech Park. What are the priorities of the two organizations, and how do their missions complement each other?

Chandra Briggman: We are an independent authority of the Commonwealth of Virginia created nearly 30 years ago. Our mission is to help grow life sciences and advanced technology innovation for the Commonwealth. Our focus is on tech-based business formation, growth, and economic development. We do that in several ways, but our focus is on ecosystem development — building and scaling homegrown businesses in Virginia.

We operate an associated nonprofit organization called the Virginia Biotechnology Park Corporation. Activation Capital and the Park corporation operate as one entity, but we do have some lines of separation. Activation Capital focuses on infrastructure (space-making), and the Bio+Tech Park is where all that activity is happening. This is how we generate revenue to support our mission. The nonprofit side of the house deploys programmatic support for entrepreneur, venture, and cluster development. I like to refer to Activation Capital as a public enterprise — a business with a public mission.

El Koubi: Can you talk about the burgeoning life sciences cluster in the Richmond and Petersburg regions and the role that you and your team are playing now, and what’s the vision for the future?

Briggman: Our organization was created in part because of this desire to nurture life sciences innovation in the region. That interest stemmed from life sciences-related research from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), located in Richmond. Interest remains today because nearly 70% of the academic inventions coming out of VCU are focused on life sciences. One of the major milestones that VCU recently reached is that it now has over $360 million in sponsored research, most of which is in life sciences.

That’s where the focus was derived. With the density of life sciences inventions growing in Richmond, the question was asked, “How might we capture that and translate that into businesses that are creating social and economic benefits for the region?” Over those 30 years, we’ve seen more than 650 bioscience companies grow up or move to the greater Richmond and Petersburg regions, including Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Waco Chemical, McKesson, and many others.

Life sciences is a rather competitive sector. There are some clear leaders around the country that everybody knows, including Boston, Montgomery County, Md., the Philadelphia area, and Raleigh-Durham, to name a few. However, while we saw growth in life sciences activity in our region, we didn’t have a clear specialization — a unique value proposition that would make the region truly competitive. That has changed in recent years with the emergence of the advanced pharmaceutical research and manufacturing cluster. That, too, started as an invention out of VCU that has now grown into this major opportunity for the Richmond-Petersburg area to re-shore the manufacturing of essential medicines in the United States.

In terms of our role, Activation Capital secured a grant to support scaling up this new emerging industry with a “cluster accelerator.” We act as a facilitator and convener for the public-private sector coalition members building key components of the emerging cluster.
Our vision is to create an end-to-end supply chain for manufacturing essential medicines in Virginia. Developing a U.S.-based supply chain is a national priority that can be met by building upon the assets and momentum in Virginia. We’re the tip of the spear creating this state-side industry because of the early investments by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the federal contract to award up to $843 million for manufacturing in the region, private sector investment, and the state and federal monies awarded to the region. The cluster is poised to help the U.S. become globally competitive in producing its medicines and increasing access to affordable health care. In doing so, we will train and educate Virginians for the 21st-century jobs that the cluster is helping to create. That’s a major opportunity.

El Koubi: Can you talk about the culture of the community that is supporting the growth of the advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing cluster?

Briggman: What I’ve noticed in the region since moving here in the summer of 2020, which coincided with this disruption that’s happened because of COVID, is that there’s a lot of support and excitement about making a difference. Before COVID, over the last 20 years, most of the manufacturing of essential medicines had moved overseas. With the disruptions to our supply chain, we saw things like electronics being disrupted and holiday gifts being delayed, etc. We also saw the disruption to our drug supply chain, which became a top priority for the federal government because of the risk to the safety and security of medicines that Americans rely on every day.

We're the tip of the spear creating this state-side industry...That's a major opportunity.

Chandra Briggman President and CEO, Activation Capital

But the culture is entrepreneurial and mission-driven. The cluster emergence started with the Medicines for All Institute, a mission-driven organization located within the VCU College of Engineering. Then the inventions that came out of Medicines for All were translated into a company, Phlow Corp., a B corporation that is also mission-driven. Then, my organization’s participation in standing up the Cluster Accelerator, also a mission-focused organization, sets the tone for the cluster. All of the partners that have come to the table at this point see the importance of a safe, secure drug supply chain for America, and they’re motivated by making this difference.

El Koubi: You mentioned that you started this new role in Virginia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. How did that affect how you approached things and your priorities as a CEO in this space?

Briggman: Activation Capital was created by the Commonwealth, but we are a self-sustaining entity, generating revenue to sustain our mission of growing life sciences and innovation. Our revenue is generated from commercial real estate. So, coming into the role in the middle of a lockdown when commercial real estate was one of the most impacted and disrupted sectors was a little concerning for me out of the gate.

But what we’ve observed is that the life sciences sector is rather resilient. It has grown in both the 2008 economic decline and this current downturn. What we saw as an organization was an increase in demand. We never closed our building. We had our offices and lab spaces open for our member companies because they were experimenting and helping solve the problems around life sciences. We were fortunate to be in the one sector in commercial real estate that saw growth. Given the organization’s history of helping to build life sciences assets in Richmond and the region’s growth forecast, we continue to prioritize and make new investments in the sector.

El Koubi: How can organizations like Activation Capital encourage investment and entrepreneurship generally, and in the life sciences space in particular?

Briggman: At the entrepreneurship level or the venture level, the key is to provide the right kind of programming and mentorship that helps entrepreneurs truly think big and about the biggest problems. That’s where you’re going to see transformational levels of funding from investors — when entrepreneurs are creating companies that can make the greatest global impact because they are focused on bigger problems and disruptive solutions. The focus should be on how we help entrepreneurs focus on the future and where the world is heading. Second is the density of entrepreneurs. The investment will follow if our region can point to the growing number of entrepreneurs innovating in this transformational way.

All of the partners that have come to the table at this point see the importance of a safe, secure drug supply chain for America, and they're motivated by making the difference.

Chandra Briggman President and CEO, Activation Capital

Also important is ensuring that the local environment is conducive for entrepreneurial growth. The region must ensure that the cost and policies for launching and scaling a business are not prohibitive. All of the above is also important for growing life sciences investment.

I would add two more things. The first is the importance of university research/inventions, a robust IP commercialization apparatus, and favorable terms for licensing IP from local universities. One of the first questions we get from potential investors — venture capitalists, real estate developers, etc. — relates to the local university’s quality and volume of research and commercialization activity. The second is building a community of specialized support and resources for entrepreneurs because there are unique challenges to building life sciences companies.

El Koubi: Can you talk about how the presence of several university partners in this area has helped the VA Bio+Tech Park attract investment and gain momentum in this area?
Briggman: The university presence is an important driver of investment in the region. In our region, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia State University, and community colleges like Brightpoint Community College are core members of our coalition to grow the advanced pharmaceutical research and manufacturing cluster. As I mentioned, they’re an important source of intellectual property. This whole advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing cluster was spawned by IP coming out of VCU. They’re also an important partner for training the talent needed to work in advanced pharmaceutical research and manufacturing and the companies created or attracted to the region. They’re very, very important from the standpoint of creating the pipeline of talent that’s needed to not only support the cluster’s launch but to maintain a pipeline of innovations and entrepreneurs that will sustain the industry.

As we think about nurturing entrepreneurs, how do we help them think big? How do we help them focus on the future and where the world is heading? The kind of advice that we give to entrepreneurial support organizations is, "The bigger, the better, because it's going to make a larger impact.

Chandra Briggman President and CEO, Activation Capital

El Koubi: Let’s talk about some of the other stakeholders and their role in that. You’ve got private-sector companies. You’ve got government. What are the other stakeholders doing? What should their role be in encouraging innovation in the life sciences?

Briggman: The private sector is driving a lot of what’s happening in our region now, particularly as it relates to the essential medicine research and manufacturing. They have provided capital investment for infrastructure totaling $450 million to build an advanced manufacturing campus in Petersburg. In partnership with Brightpoint Community College, the private sector also supports the workforce development needed for their facilities, both for current and future needs. There are projects in the pipeline in the greater Richmond area for lab space in the Bio+Tech Park that will involve private sector investment. The private sector is a major driver in building out this ecosystem at all levels.

The local government can play an important role in helping us truly attract supply chain partners to actualize the end-to-end manufacturing of essential medicines in our region. The federal government has invested in the region. Some philanthropic organizations have endorsed the region with funding. I would say funding from the Commonwealth would be a tremendous support for growing this cluster and creating the kind of policies that will make it conducive for the companies that want to come and collocate and help build out this cluster to move to Virginia.
El Koubi: As a photography buff, what are your favorite places to take pictures in Virginia, and any spots that are really important to you as you explore the Commonwealth?

Briggman: I live in Richmond now, and when I moved here, everything was locked down, but one of the things I enjoyed was walking through the city and finding all the murals and taking snapshots of those because I love art, and Richmond has a great art scene. So that’s been exciting for me. I’m also a nature buff. Because I relocated during the lockdown, that has afforded me a lot of time to spend outdoors. Since moving back to Virginia, I have enjoyed taking shots in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley and out in the western part of the state along the Appalachian Trail.


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