Since the idea was first fleshed out as part of the Commonwealth’s effort to attract Amazon HQ2 to Northern Virginia, Brandy Salmon has played a leading role in ensuring Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus progresses from ambition to a reality.

Salmon helped President Tim Sands and members of his executive team develop the campus proposal, and she has served as managing director of the Innovation Campus delivery team since plans for the new campus to be built in Alexandria, Virginia were first announced in November of 2018.

As managing director, Salmon has led the cross-functional delivery team — comprised of leaders from across the university — charged with systematically and deliberately executing an action plan to launch the campus.

In the 15 months since its creation, the delivery team has consistently achieved major milestones, including this month’s hiring of Lance R. Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell University, as the inaugural vice president and executive director of the Innovation Campus. He starts Aug. 1.

Collins’ hiring means Salmon’s role with the campus will evolve, but her ideas and leadership will continue to shape the project — both during Collins' transition and as she continues to lead the delivery team and beyond.

As Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for innovation and partnerships, Salmon leads LINK LICENSE LAUNCH, a team dedicated to growing the university’s support for industry partnerships, technology commercialization, and startups. It's an effort central to the future of the Innovation Campus and Virginia Tech.

In a recent interview, Salmon discussed the Innovation Campus, how LINK LICENSE LAUNCH is shaping Virginia Tech’s role in Virginia and the nation, and why higher education is crucial for the future of work in the world.

What's the game plan for the Innovation Campus between now and August, when Lance Collins comes on?

The delivery team is not slowing down, and I'll continue to serve as project lead over the next six months. We have and will continue to adapt as the project evolves, and we look forward to supporting Lance in whatever way he needs as he assumes his role.

Hands down, the best part of this project has been working with the delivery team. Big projects require big efforts and we move with urgency and purpose. We’ve been working together for over a year and have made amazing progress on all of the major work streams. Possibly the biggest sign of our momentum is that we attracted a candidate of the caliber of Lance Collins. His hiring marked a major milestone, but we have made lots of others too. We also make it a point to have fun and to be inspired by this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On any given week, you can probably find one of us or even a team riding the Campus Connect bus. If you want to be regaled with stories, ride the bus with Bob Broyden (associate vice president for capital assets and financial management at Virginia Tech) — he is for sure the best storyteller.  

How does your work with LINK LICENSE LAUNCH intersect with the Innovation Campus? 

One of my favorite sayings is “luck favors the prepared.” What has unfolded over the past couple of years is not an accident. Through the leadership of President Sands and others, the university was steadily increasing our support structures and commitments around industry partnerships and innovation.  When VEDP came calling, we were ready.

The Innovation Campus will be located in Alexandria’s North Potomac Yard, which is being redeveloped into an innovation district where we will be the signature anchor institution. Talent attracts talent and the campus and other firms in National Landing where Amazon is building their HQ2 will kickstart and sustain the tech-sector ecosystem.

National Landing and our work there offers a really exciting platform for partnerships of all types. The LINK LICENSE LAUNCH team will be deeply engaged in helping forge partnerships to support the university mission and create value to our partners.

How does the Innovation Campus and its role as a talent magnet affect Virginia Tech’s other campuses?

Let’s start with the tech talent investment package approved by the General Assembly. This two-part strategy is quite complementary, in that we’ll be growing undergraduate programs in computer science and computer engineering in Blacksburg and graduate programs in Northern Virginia. A third of our students call Northern Virginia home. This provides a natural cycle of people and programs across the urban-rural continuum. One of the principal objectives of the tech talent initiative is to retain more talent in the state. This kind of cycle will really help.  We also have plans to connect more deeply into K-12 programs in NOVA to support talent pipelines. Like the Qualcomm Thinkabit lab, we look forward to collaborating with industry partners to come up with creative solutions and programs to address STEM talent gaps.

LINK LICENSE LAUNCH functions as a one-stop shop for companies and those interested in starting new ventures, while also supporting faculty in moving their ideas to market. How does it work?

Many programs and centers have been engaging successfully with industry long before LINK LICENSE LAUNCH.  Institutes like Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and centers like the Center for Power Electronics Systems are masters at working with industry. Our role is to build on the momentum, lower the barriers, and offer a support structure that enables partnerships along the full path from discovery to market.

We’ve built a team with the complement of skills needed to manage what can be complex work. Members of the team have been business developers, consultants, strategists, entrepreneurs, intellectual property attorneys, innovators, teachers, and communicators. Former employers include leading firms like IBM, Medtronic, Guidant, BWXT, Booz Allen Hamilton, RTI International, and others.

We love the flywheel concept that Amazon uses to describe positive customer interactions. In our case, we think of LINK LICENSE LAUNCH as our flywheel, with industry partners as our customers. We work to bring value to the front end, ensure discoveries made at Virginia Tech are supported (for example, through patent protection), and when possible, we enable launch of new ventures. Through our flywheel, we foster a culture and mindset for innovating and expand our reach through the success of others.

LINK was founded two years ago, while LICENSE & LAUNCH are more recent.  Can you share a bit more about them?

The team at LINK is focused on partnerships at the “front end” with companies interested in engaging in the educational and research mission of the university, whereas LICENSE & LAUNCH (in conjunction with Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties, an affiliate organization) are focused on managing the intellectual assets of the university, commercializing technologies, and starting new ventures.  Virginia Tech has not always focused on the LICENSE & LAUNCH side of the house. But we are now. We’ve made swift progress in a short period of time. Just this year, we’ve doubled the number of licenses and issued patents from last year.

As we engage with the market, innovators have more opportunity to generate discoveries with real-world application. The LICENSE & LAUNCH team is working to build a more robust portfolio. Creating pathways to start new companies is really important for building the local ecosystem, attracting talent, and encouraging investment. We want more companies like Block.one and TORC to be located in southwestern Virginia to increase opportunities and economic impact locally. We’re also excited to support economic-impact goals of the Innovation Campus and other efforts across the Commonwealth.

How does LINK LICENSE LAUNCH's work benefit students?

Part of LINK's job is to enable industry engagement in the classroom, after all most of students go on to work for companies.  Like the Calhoun Discovery Program, we strive to bring real, complicated, and interdisciplinary challenges to students so that they can hit the ground running when they graduate.

The most important issues of the 21st Century will include those at the human-computing frontier. In that context, part of LINK's job is to create an environment for industry engagement beyond the purely technological, and include the associated human factors, policy and regulatory issues, equity and prosperity, and societal implications. Back to the flywheel concept, Virginia Tech sets itself apart when it anticipates the professions of the future and examines systems-level, interdisciplinary topics. By being at the cutting edge, we create virtuous cycles of engagement and discovery with our partners to build bigger, bolder, and more sustaining partnerships.

What motivates your team at LINK LICENSE LAUNCH?

Another one of my favorite quotes is credited to Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small team of committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  We agree.  And it is with optimism, hard-work, and service-oriented sensibilities that we get to work.

We love the mission of Virginia Tech and we love the community we serve. We know that our work matters. If you have a great idea or you want to see something happen, let’s get connected.

By Mason Adams