Va. Tech’s new Innovation Campus is more than ‘Amazon University’

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Amazon's decision to build a $2.5 billion headquarters in Arlington County hinged on major tech education expansions in Northern Virginia. (Courtesy InsideNova)
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The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus in Potomac Yard, a $1 billion, 1-million-square-foot graduate school coming to Alexandria, played a key role in Amazon’s decision to bring an East Coast headquarters to Northern Virginia.

But don’t call it Amazon University.

The digital retail giant’s decision to build a $2.5 billion headquarters in Arlington County hinged on major tech education expansions in Northern Virginia.

In February, the Virginia General Assembly approved a $1.1 billion higher education package in an effort to “build a talent pipeline for Virginia to help attract Amazon and solve a critical shortage for the state,” Virginia Tech said in a news release. The university and the state have each committed $250 million to the project.

At its main campus in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech expects to add at least 2,000 undergraduate students studying computer science, computer engineering, and related disciplines over the next five years, as well as hire up to 140 new faculty members. At the Innovation Campus, the first master’s degree students will enroll in either existing locations or temporary space within a year, with the campus hosting 500 master’s degree students within five years.

The school began planning years ago for a campus aimed at driving technology education and research across the state, and plans for an Alexandria campus were already in the works before Amazon came along.

“As the land-grant research institution, we stepped up to claim our role of driving economic development by leveraging our strengths in technology and engineering and building on our strong partnerships in Washington,” university President Tim Sands said.

The school says that students and businesses across the region will benefit from the Innovation Campus, feeding an ongoing need for highly educated workers in computer science fields.

At a February event hosted by Bisnow to discuss Amazon’s impact on Northern Virginia, Matt Kelly, CEO of JBG Smith, said he believes National Landing and all it encompasses will have a lasting impact in changing the region’s economy by bringing in new business. JBG Smith is the developer of National Landing, where Amazon plans to locate its main campus.

“Amazon will always be one of the most important factors because it will have been the catalyst that kicked it all off,” he said at the event. “But over time I actually envision a day when the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus and the graduates it’s producing, and all of the other employers that fill in around it … will be just as impactful and important in this market.”

Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, said Amazon’s choice of Northern Virginia for its headquarters highlights the importance of higher education to the state’s long-term growth.

“Virginia’s biggest employment growth opportunity in the years ahead will be in tech – from artificial intelligence to cloud computing to cybersecurity, and everything in between,” Moret said after Amazon’s announcement. “Our success in growing the tech sector will be inextricably linked to our success in developing, attracting, and retaining world-class tech talent.

“In a knowledge-driven economy, competitiveness and success depend on universities being willing to step forward to do even more. Virginia Tech has done exactly that.”

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