13:02 PM

Keyser: Innovation: The Region's Foundation and Its Destiny


Troy Keyser is director of Carilion Clinic Innovation.

troy keyser

Sometimes it seems to me that we don’t give ourselves enough credit in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. The truth is our region is grounded in innovation, and the innovation we see today is built on the shoulders of others – particularly in health care. 

Here we are in the 2020s, where we’ve been living the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Shortages in supplies and equipment became the impetus for novel devices and processes. 

  • Carilion Clinic Innovation (CCI) and Virginia Tech engineers developed a face shield to protect Life-Guard crews. 
  • The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech Carilion’s rapid COVID test joined the list of local innovations that helped our region respond. 
  • Telemedicine blossomed from assisting patients in our most rural areas to an almost overnight explosion of virtual visits for all patients in Carilion's service region. 

CCI didn’t exist in the 1960s or the 1980s. Its existence today and the intentional way Carilion – and many other organizations – approach novel discoveries and inventions are the x-factors propelling our region into the future. 

CCI helps fuel the health system's innovators making unique discoveries through their research and continuous improvements to caring for our patients. We’re developing, protecting, marketing and capturing value generated from Carilion intellectual property (IP) and innovations, working with industry partners interested in licensing the IP or collaborating with Carilion’s researchers and inventors. 

CCI also invests in startups that are spun off. These include ArchiveCore's medical credentialing system, Metistream's surgical data reviewer and Chorda Pharma's non-opioid treatments for chronic pain. And our Makerspace is in Carilion’s Center for Simulation, Research and Patient Safety. Researchers from Virginia Tech, Virginia Western Community College, and other organizations collaborate there regularly – all in the heart of the Roanoke Innovation Corridor. 

The Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) Strategic Partnership is the hub of the innovative culture bolstering the region’s economic engine. The VTC School of Medicine educates the next generation of doctors. Meantime, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC conducts world-class research in various health disciplines. 

This innovation ecosystem expands daily with Verge, the umbrella organization for the Valleys Innovation Council, the Roanoke-Blacksburg-Technology Council and RAMP, the region’s business accelerator and mentoring program. Verge drives innovation toward becoming a greater collaborative force in the region. The organization harnesses our leading minds – education leaders and researchers, business executives and entrepreneurs, public sector officials and, yes, health care experts – to drive the region forward. 

Recently, the Roanoke Regional Partnership released its Thrive 2027 strategic plan. Goal 1 is growing “the regional economy by amplifying business recruitment and expansion efforts, strengthening technology and innovation, and generating more high-paying jobs.” Verge supports that goal by boosting the region’s reputation as a technology and innovation center, with a compelling narrative and communications strategy in development. 

I work every day with the region’s transformational inventors, who generate upwards of 200 patents annually. Those patents are an essential measure of our region’s innovation capacity and critical to ensuring the power of innovation for decades ahead. But Verge’s executive director Greg Feldmann says the size of the innovation ecosystem isn’t what’s most important. It’s the quality of the innovators and their partners that builds success. 

And success stems from foundations born here.

  • Virginia Tech industrial education graduate student Leon Arp saw respiratory distress syndrome affect his son in the 1960s and set out on the invention path. By 1967, Roanoke Memorial Hospital tested Dr. Arp’s treatment methods and the Arp Respirator, equipped with oxygen volume and concentration sensors geared to babies’ lungs. Dr. Arp then watched one of his undergraduate students, Andy Muelenaer, practice his mentor’s principles as a doctor at Carilion Children’s Hospital using a new generation of pediatric respirators. Dr. Arp passed away on July 23. 
  • Life-Guard, Virginia's first medevac helicopter service, was born in the 1980s thanks to Carilion’s investments. As a result, patients in rural areas gained easier access to the Level 1 Trauma Center at Roanoke Memorial. 

Collaborative efforts like these have led to our modern secret sauce. They enhance workforce efforts like the Blue Ridge Partnership for Health Science Careers, preparing workers for tomorrow's workplaces. They nurture the pathways turning research into products and accelerating the mentorships behind RAMP's cohorts of startup companies. And social networks create the connections for the people behind innovations, constructing the relationships needed to make businesses grow and thrive. 

We can’t stop there, but maybe we should give ourselves a little credit. Innovation is in our blood.