Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC) is moving forward with the design of a $3 million companion facility to the SOVA Innovation Hub, with the planned second building in downtown South Boston geared towards attracting entrepreneurs and small technology firms that need space and resources to grow.
Dubbed the SOVA Innovation Lab, the project is envisioned as an anchor of southern Virginia’s strategy to become part of high-tech industries such as AI artificial intelligence, software development and cybersecurity.
“The goal was always to put some kind of facility there that would tie into what we’re doing at the Innovation Hub, to create a campus effect,” said Tad Deriso, president/CEO of Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation.
Deriso said MBC is working with Microsoft, its partner at the Innovation Hub, to fit the project into the computing giant’s TechSpark initiative to foster economic growth in rural communities such as Southside Virginia, where Microsoft maintains cloud computing operations in Boydton.
While MBC is spearheading the investment, design and construction of the Innovation Lab, “this is all right within their wheelhouse,” said Deriso of Microsoft.
This week, MBC submitted a grant request of $100,000 to the Virginia Tobacco Commission to help pay for a design and engineering study on the new 13,200 square foot multi-use building, which will feature offices and a maker space. The one-and-a-half story building will be walkable to downtown South Boston establishments such as coffee shops, restaurants, retail, housing, and cultural amenities.
MBC will pay the other half-share of the $200,000 cost of the design study, Deriso said.
The lab building will be located up the rise from the 15,000 square foot SOVA Innovation Hub. That building houses Microsoft TechSpark’s Southern Virginia office on the ground floor and the upstairs serves as MBC’s new corporate home. The Innovation Hub also has leased first floor offices to non-profit educational, job assistance and community development groups, and is offering collaborative work spaces to other potential tenants.
By fall, Microsoft expects to open its Microsoft Experience Center, showcasing some of its latest technological advancements in fields such as AI.
The Innovation Lab, by contrast, will be more commercially oriented in nature, Deriso said.
While it’s possible the facility may hold appeal for large companies looking to expand, “truthfully I would see [it attracting] smaller companies that have just started up or have some initial funding from angels and are looking to scale up,” said Deriso.
The Innovation Lab will draw upon existing resources — including the Hub next door, the SVHEC and its ProductWorks offshoot, and Longwood University’s regional small business assistance center — to “develop an entrepreneurial pipeline in the area,” Deriso said.
To underwrite the projected $3 million construction cost, MBC will invest its own money and also seek outside private investors. “We’ve got coding, cybersecurity folks talking to us, engineering firms talking to us, there are a lot of different uses,” said Deriso.
MBC, a wholesale provider of fiber optic broadband connectivity throughout Virginia and three other states, will likely apply for federal grant funding for the Innovation Lab, but Deriso said the company will not be approaching Halifax County for money. “They’ve got plenty else they need to do.”
The $100,000 application to the tobacco commission should be decided by late spring, and MBC envisions the design/engineering study will be completed by late November.
Construction could begin soon after. With approval of the grant, MBC envisions that the SOVA Innovation Lab could be open by June 2022.
The Innovation Lab’s makerspace area — a place where innovators can come together with resources to support their work, from 3D printers to visualization systems to basic hand tools — will become part “of a network of makerspaces in Southern Virginia, including the Dalton IDEA Center in Martinsville, the planned makerspace in Stuart, and the in-development makerspace in Farmville,” MBC stated on its grant application to the tobacco commission.
“This will create a SOVA Innovation Campus in downtown South Boston, fueling this small town’s potential and evolution as a Rural Tech Hub. The SOVA Innovation Hub is already generating a leads list of potential users and tenants and will seek their input in the design of the building to ensure it meets the region’s needs,” the application continued.
“It’s exciting to get some fresh development downtown and bring some things in,” said Deriso.