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State Grants To Help Virginia Tech Stop Local Brain Drain / Enhance Blockchain

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Stop the region’s brain drain.

Build a hub for blockchain technology.

These are two initiatives that Virginia Tech is launching in the next year. Grants from the Growth and Opportunity for Virginia funding program will help make them happen.

Recently, the university received a total of $546,800 in grants to spearhead two separate programs aimed at helping students land internships, boost the Roanoke and New River valley economies, and establish Blacksburg as a blockchain hub. The mission of the bi-partisan GO Virginia program is to create high-paying jobs through incentives that encourage collaboration between businesses, education, and government to strengthen the state’s economy.

One of the GO Virginia grants will fund the start of a blockchain hub in Blacksburg, called the Blockchain Ecosystem Catalyst. It would focus on expanding the use and understanding of blockchain technology, including teaching professionals in the region about it and, in general, attracting more blockchain companies to the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Blockchain is a system that allows digital information to be distributed. It consists of blocks of data that are linked using codes, or cryptology. It’s an emerging technology and one that is increasingly important for businesses to embrace, said Kirk Cameron, a professor of computer science at Virginia Tech who teaches blockchain courses. A team that includes Cameron, representatives from Virginia Tech’s LINK: Center for Advancing Industry Partnerships, and the Valleys Innovation Council designed the program proposal.

The program would allow Virginia Tech to extend its resources to the professional community.

“People need opportunities like this to gain expertise in a field that is a growing area,” Cameron said. “It’s an outreach and engagement activity, a service that we can provide to the region because of who we are as Virginia Tech.”

Along with the $246,800 GO Virginia grant for the Blockchain Ecosystem Catalyst, Virginia Tech will receive $250,000 in matching funds to launch this program. The Virginia Tech Foundation will contribute $190,000 of those matching funds, and the rest will be split between Roanoke and New River valley localities. Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science also will contribute.

Cameron, who will lead the program, said he expects to hire a project manager in the next month to handle economic development aspects of the initiative.

Also, this month Virginia Tech hosted the inaugural Blocksburg Summit, which brought together experts and companies that work in blockchain technology to discuss the industry and their work.

The second GO Virginia grant, called Developing a Destination for Talent, aims to create a smoother path for Virginia Tech students to land internships and jobs in the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Often, students overlook the region’s opportunities and move to bigger cities after graduation, said Catherine Amelink, acting vice provost for learning systems innovation and effectiveness at Virginia Tech.

But the region’s employers offer valuable experiences for students, too, and many seek the skills and talents that Virginia Tech students have, she said.

“They don’t always have access to our students,” Amelink said, explaining that local companies often compete with larger, national businesses at campus job fairs.

That could change with this new program, which is set to begin this summer. It will connect students with regional companies for internships through both Amelink’s office and Career and Professional Development at Virginia Tech. Interns will be paid, with the $300,000 GO Virginia grant covering about 50 percent of their wages. Employers will pay the rest. This gives companies the opportunity to increase their current wages to be more competitive.

Already at least 20 companies have agreed to join the program, Amelink said.

“The grant was the incentive for different organizations and local employers who are interested in retaining and developing talent in the region to come together and really think about how we can create a sustainable program,” she said.

The program will host campus receptions for students to meet employers in the region. Also, the university will work with companies that need help establishing formal internship programs, said Donna Ratcliffe, director of career and professional development at Virginia Tech.

“The big idea is that we want to create pathways for Virginia Tech students to get great hands-on, real-world work experience,” Ratcliffe said. “We also want to introduce students to the idea that the New River and Roanoke valleys are good places to work, live, and play after graduation.”

Engineering, health care, and technology jobs are in high demand in the region, said Erin Burcham, director of talent solutions at the Roanoke Regional Partnership, a regional economic development organization focused on talent attraction and recruitment.

Burcham serves on the grant committee for the new Virginia Tech program. The committee is organizing a Nov. 21 event at the Inn at Virginia Tech to talk with employers about developing internship programs and business environments that inspire college interns to consider working there after graduation, if positions are available.

The goal, Burcham said, is to help employers understand the value of working with students.

“An internship should be viewed as a time to prepare students to be your next full-time employees,” she said.

Jenny Kincaid Boone