In the fall of 2018, possibilities were being redefined in West Virginia.
John Chambers, two-time West Virginia University alumnus, former CEO and Chairman of Cisco Systems Inc., and founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures, partnered with WVU and the College of Business and Economics that now bears his name and challenged West Virginia to move to a digital-first future and reinvent itself through startups.
West Virginia accepted that challenge in a big way this month when Virgin Hyperloop announced that it will call the Mountain State home for its new certification center, where it will reimagine the future of transit and how we live, work and move people and cargo.
According to Javier Reyes, Milan Puskar Dean of the Chambers College and vice president of Startup West Virginia, Virgin Hyperloop’s decision to bring the transit innovation of tomorrow to West Virginia is exactly the kind of reinvention Chambers had in mind.
“West Virginia has always been a place with tremendous resources and opportunities, and Virgin Hyperloop is giving us an opportunity to showcase those on a global scale,” Reyes said. "They are changing the world with their groundbreaking ideas for transit, and they will transform West Virginia’s economy through a new way of thinking about job creation in the process.”
Scale and impact: The power of Vantage Ventures
In between Chambers’ challenge two years ago and Virgin Hyperloop’s announcement that they would build the first full-scale hyperloop certification center on nearly 800 acres of land spanning Tucker and Grant counties, there was a driving force that played a key role in igniting a new chapter of innovation for West Virginia.
Enter Vantage Ventures, a tenacious team of innovators positioned on WVU’s campus to aggregate resources and launch high impact, scalable businesses that tackle complex challenges.
Led by the vision and energy of Executive Director Sarah Biller, one of the founding executives of FinTech Sandbox, Vantage Ventures launched in October 2019 with a mission to support entrepreneurs building capital efficient technology companies. In some cases, these startups are deploying intellectual property from WVU’s expansive research platforms. All are leveraging West Virginia’s previously untapped pools of science, technology, engineering and business talent with the support of its strong pipeline of mentors, executives, and funding networks.
It was that pipeline of connectivity that proved to be the differentiating edge for West Virginia in the process of responding to Virgin Hyperloop’s RFP for its Certification Center in the fall of 2019.
“We knew West Virginia was uniquely positioned to provide the differentiated, substantive engineering, human health and safety expertise as well as the support at the state and federal levels that would improve the likelihood that Virgin Hyperloop would be the first to achieve regulatory approval,” Biller said. “The team at Vantage Ventures coalesced key partners from academic, public and private industry to remove the obstacles for Virgin Hyperloop and enable them to focus on success.”
A winning formula for innovation: Academic research + public and private sector partnerships
Biller and her team brought industry partners, advanced manufacturing centers, state government officials and research experts together to design and plan for how a Certification Center in West Virginia could be positioned for success.
Many of the research experts she engaged were right in Vantage Ventures’ backyard. Biller invited researchers from across campus, including in the Chambers College, the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, and the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute to lend their expertise on a range of topics including bridge engineering, composite materials, economic impact, regulatory processes and the effects of traveling in a high-speed tube on the human body in the spirit of serving WVU’s land-grant mission.
The work of Virgin Hyperloop intersects with a number of the academic disciplines housed with the Chambers College in global supply chain management, marketing/customer experience, securing customer data, management information systems, artificial intelligence and other emerging areas.
As Virgin Hyperloop transforms transportation through disruptive innovation, the environment in the state will evolve and will create opportunities for synergies and other forms of entrepreneurship through startups. The Chambers College, in collaboration with other WVU units, can be the conduit to support these businesses and their emerging technologies. The Virgin Hyperloop project has provided a playbook for WVU to work with other innovation arms of corporations, creating opportunities to further transform our state and to provide experiential learning, research and student placement opportunities.
One of the subject matter experts at the table for discussions with Virgin Hyperloop during the RFP process was Janet Fraser, teaching assistant professor and coordinator of the Business Data Analytics program in the Chambers College. Fraser has a Ph.D. in civil engineering and worked for a federal government contractor as a transportation systems engineer on a range of projects related to the deployment of technology in support of transportation operations prior to joining the faculty at WVU.
Fraser, who has done research in transportation safety to help individuals navigate the world in a safer manner, was uniquely qualified to bring understanding of policy landscape to the conversations in terms of how different levels of government work in transportation systems, and what is possible from engineering systems.
“We knew this could be the start of an Appalachian Silicon Valley,” Fraser said. “We talked a lot about new technologies and their feasibility, and what’s reasonable to get someone interested in a project like this.”
For Fraser, being at the table to shape these conversations speaks to the power of academic research joining with commercial research and development to get big wins in innovation.
“By marrying academic research to private sector development, we get the best of both worlds. We can take risks and get a vehicle to develop things that we can put into action immediately,” Fraser said. “This is allowing us to do things that we couldn’t have believed were possible a year ago.”
The impact of Virgin Hyperloop in West Virginia will also expand into her classroom, illustrating the power of experiential learning – a pillar of the academic mission of the Chambers College.
“The Certification Center will work as a learning laboratory for students,” Fraser said. “It’s an illustration of what innovation can look like and what elements exist with stakeholders at all levels when you build something new. Students can visit it, explore it, see it. They can make the connection between ideas and real innovation. It will allow them to dream of what they are capable of developing in their careers.”
The economic shock West Virginia needed
The research on the economics of innovation giants like Virgin Hyperloop coming to West Virginia will be studied and quantified by John Deskins and his team of researchers in the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, housed in the Chambers College.
According to Deskins, big innovations of this nature making a home in West Virginia delivers the kind of economic shock the state has long desired.
“The Virgin Hyperloop project is a perfect example of West Virginia building on its strengths,” Deskins said. “This is the catalyst to start positive momentum.”
That positive momentum spills into younger populations, driving enrollment to West Virginia colleges, as students will see opportunities in the state after graduation.
“This is the kind of innovation that makes young people want to stay in West Virginia,” Deskins said. “This will help the state retain and attract young people. We’re giving them another opportunity that draws them here – and compels them to stay. Enrollment follows population.”
Biller has always believed in West Virginia, its people and its possibilities.
She’s proud to be on the front lines of a project that will help others believe in West Virginia – and will open new doors of opportunity in a state that has so often been underestimated.
“We are redefining what’s possible for West Virginians,” Biller said. “There’s a whole generation looking at this saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this’. It shatters every expectation held about what can happen here and what West Virginia can do when we decide we really want it.”
CONTACT: Heather Richardson
Assistant Dean of Communications
John Chambers College of Business & Economics
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