CvilleBioHub Launches CHIP Internship Program, Bolstering Workforce Development Ecosystem in Charlottesville, Virginia BioHealth Cluster 

Established in 2016 to support the growing biohealth ecosystem in and around Charlottesville, Virginia, CvilleBioHub is a young, emerging, and growing organization with lofty ambitions. The organization’s mission is to double the size of the biohealth cluster it serves by 2030 through strong engagement, deft resourcing, valuable programming, and grassroots advocacy.

“The BioHub was started by a group of biotech industry leaders. We brought our unique blend of experiences to the organization. We had been talking for ten years about connecting this biotech community and we knew it was strong, we knew who the players are but other people still couldn’t find out about who was here, what was happening and how we were doing,” stated Nikki Hastings, Co-founder and Executive Director of CvilleBioHub.

In CvilleBioHub’s early days, Hastings and the CvilleBioHub team took a grassroots approach to building awareness of their organization and getting the community involved.

“We launched our website, built company profiles and we started hosting events. We had a host party and it was really about gathering the people together and creating community, saying that we care about who is here and that we’re all a part of this,” Hastings said. 

The organization started building a following and eventually secured support from Go Virginia”, which has enabled it to transition from a grassroots organization to one that has built out a clear strategic plan to grow and strengthen the biotech industry in the region. Cville has about 70 biotech companies currently and is looking to double that number in the next ten years while adding new jobs to the existing 2,000 or so biotech jobs in the Charlottesville area. Medical device companies make up about 40% of the Cville biocluster that also includes a strong cohort in therapeutics and growing software, healthcare tech, and agtech sectors.

“There is so much great innovation and tech transfer activity coming out of the University of Virginia (UVA). But until we came to be, it was very difficult to navigate how the region was organized. Martin Chapman, a fellow Co-founder and the President and CEO of Indoor Biotechnologies, created a space that was envisioned for community gatherings and we’ve utilized this to bring the biocluster community together,” stated Hastings.

As part of this effort, CvilleBioHub recently launched its CHIP Internship Program, wisely recognizing that developing the next generation of life science talent is critical to amplifying and growing the Cville region over the next ten years. The CHIP program, which is the first of its kind in the Charlottesville hub, evolved out of CvilleBioHub’s involvement with the Go Virginia program, which was also focused on supporting workforce development programming in the region.

“We have been connecting people to jobs and companies for a while informally. There was no formal process until we created this workforce development program that included candidate matching and an internship program. Students were coming to events and we saw their interest, engagement and excitement turning towards careers in industry and this program was a really great way to connect the pipeline talent from the region and the University of Virginia to companies in the area,” shared Hastings.

“It’s really hard to envision what an industry position is like without getting your foot in the door and experiencing it. These paid summer internships allow students to do that,” Hastings added.

Stephany Oettinger, the organization’s Program and Communications Manager, has spearheaded the launch of the CHIP.

Year one of the paid summer internship program is focused primarily on UVA students within the university’s strong biomedical engineering, engineering, School of Medicine, and Darden School of Business programs. The first cohort also includes a Virginia Tech student and Oettinger noted that the program hopes to build future partnerships with other educational institutions, including regional community colleges like Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC). CvilleBioHub’s leadership is also actively engaged with other industry leaders across Virginia about expanding its programming statewide to connect with other Virginia hubs. 

The first cohort includes 17 summer interns placed at 11 companies in the region in the agtech, medical device, digital health, biomanufacturing and therapeutics fields. The CHIP program also includes a BioBuddy program, where interns are paired with a partner throughout the duration of their internship. 

Oettinger shared, “What’s cool about the program is that there are undergraduates all the way to MBAs. There’s a diversity to what an intern looks like which has brought a unique depth to the intern experience. We look for local candidates and we look to match interns to companies. The companies really determine the criteria for selection. The companies we work with all have different experience and expertise needs when it comes to talent and our program does a great job matching intern skills with these needs.”

“It’s really a brokerage process. We find out what interns and companies are interested in and we match them. We are on a small enough scale that we can deliver a high-touch experience for both the student and the companies, which goes back to our mission — creating and building community,” stated Hastings. “I think this is why this program has been so successful so far.”

Oettinger added, “Looking back, having talked to interns over the summer, I think this process was less intimidating. They weren’t just sending resumes into the ether and hoping for a call. We took the time to have conversations with them and this adds to the unique value proposition of the program. Our model places an intentional focus on building connection and community amongst the interns, which typically doesn’t happen on the university or company side of things.” 

“We were inspired to see how many were interested in exploring industry and they just needed to see the path ahead and we provide that opportunity. The hope is that a summer experience might dovetail into a full time position upon graduation, here in Cville, and now we have homegrown talent feeding our entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she added.

The CHIP internship program has three structured check-ins, which have now become virtual due to COVID-19. Design Thinking and how to apply it to your life and problem solving are core focus areas of the program’s curriculum. The program also had a Cville company founder present their story to the interns and interns received weekly prompts for BioBuddies to share and emails with valuable content. The program culminates in a final project showcase where interns give a flash talk about the projects they worked on and the companies they worked for; they share their experience with their cohort group, the participating companies, and the wider Cville biotech community. The program also offers one-on-one career advice and counsel through its network for interested students. 

“We had quite an experience in March. We weren’t quite sure where it was going to go. COVID hit the week we were matching interns. We were hearing from companies that were unsure of where things were going and weren’t sure if they would be doing internships. We connected with a UVA student last fall from New England who had a great internship lined up in Boston and then COVID hit and the internship was cancelled.. He asked us if there was anything in the Charlottesville area that he could do remotely? We said yeah, let’s connect you. He had a great summer working for an early stage startup and that gave the startup momentum…It was an amazing, interesting shift of need and resources. We did the matches and then rematched and it felt really good to support companies and students that had lost internships. I think this speaks to the strength of the community we’ve helped create,” stated Hastings. 

Less than five years old, and with just its first CHIP cohort under its belt, CvilleBioHub is well on its way to amplifying the Cville brand and expanding the Charlottesville, Virginia biohealth cluster by building a thoughtful, strategic and community-minded support ecosystem. The program has already had an impact on the region in only its first year, including:

  • Providing access to matching funds proved critical to support positions when budgets were uncertain or shrinking
  • The program’s success had led to some positions potentially being extended into the fall, which is a win-win for both students and companies
  • Students have been able to work on life-changing projects and technologies, including  the Indoor Biotechnologies/COVID protein project
  • Placing more than one student intern at newly emerging startups, giving these young companies momentum to get to the next stage that might not have otherwise been possible during the pandemic

If you’re a student in the Charlottesville area interested in a paid summer internship, you can email [email protected] And if you’re interested in watching the current intern cohort’s final project showcase on August 7, 2020, from 10 am – 12 pm, you can sign up here.

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