Opportunity Starts Here, Partnerships Grow Here


When Shrishti Singh, PhD Bioengineering ’22, came to George Mason University for her doctoral studies, she had a goal in mind: developing a new technology that would allow the visualization of cancer in deep tissue and perhaps enable earlier diagnoses.

Shristi Singh uses a syringe on a pippette in a lab.
Entrepreneur Shristi Singh in her lab on Mason's Science and Technology Campus.
Read more about Singh's research. >>
Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

Using a combination of FDA-approved dyes and photoacoustic imaging, Singh created an injectable dye that attaches to tumor cells and increases the contrast of those cells against the background tissue.

During her time at Mason, Singh used all the tools the university provided to bring her discovery to the marketplace. In April 2023, Singh was on one of the 15 teams that competed for $40,000 in prizes at the Costello College of Business Patriot Pitch Competition. She took home first place and the Mason’s Choice Award in the competition’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) track.

In November 2023, Singh was at Mason Square pitching her technology at Mason’s annual Accelerate Investor Conference, which attracts more than 400 entrepreneurs, investors, students, and members of the Washington, D.C., entrepreneurial ecosystem. She was also awarded $75,000 by the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation’s Commonwealth Commercialization Fund.

Singh, now a postdoctoral fellow at Mason, co-founded her company NIRView Biosciences with her bioengineering faculty mentors Remi Veneziano and Parag Chitnis. Singh and NIRView Biosciences have been designated a 2023 Virginia Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Success Story.

Growing Small Businesses

The Virginia SBDC, a part of Mason Enterprise, is an organization of 25 offices across Virginia providing professional advising and resources to help businesses grow. Singh participated in its Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP), a no-cost incubator that helps technology start-ups from ideation to initial funding and beyond.

NIRView Biosciences worked with ICAP’s life science business mentors over the course of a year to position their technology for successful commercialization, and in 2023 they were accepted into the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, which provides financial support and experiential education to help university researchers commercialize scientific discoveries.

Singh was one of 30,000 entrepreneurs who participated in a Virginia SBDC workshop, seminar, or training in 2023. Through its 16 programs, the Virginia SBDC helped 10,000 businesses, provided 40,000 hours of one-on-one counseling, offered 1,600 training programs, and incubated more than 550 companies with an impact of $3.36 billion. Of the businesses they served, 61 percent were woman- owned, 46 percent were minority-owned, and  15 percent were veteran-owned.

Paula Sorrell, associate vice president of innovation and economic development, leads Mason Enterprise. This university-based economic development organization focuses the energy, skills, and intellectual capital of Virginians on lab-to-market expansion of university research, new company creation, and small business expansion. Virginia Business magazine recently named Sorrell to its list of 100 Virginians to Meet in 2024: Innovators.

“Mason has used its university position to develop a powerhouse of interwoven federal, state, and local programs,” says Sorrell. “But even more critical are the partnerships among the private and public organizations that help support and codevelop the programs and mentor innovators.”

Through a broad array of activities that include business counseling, workshops, training, and connections to Mason assets—faculty research, classes, and potential interns—Mason Enterprise strengthens the strategy development and operations of businesses, governments, and other institutions throughout Virginia and the region. The Virginia APEX Accelerator (DoD) helps small businesses compete for government contracts, which total more than $1.5 billion annually.

The Virginia SBDC is also part of the larger Mason Virginia Promise, which offers a pathway to a bachelor’s degree or help starting a small business to any Virginian who wants one.

In 2023, Mason also expanded its small business incubator programs to the Town of Herndon, with the aim of empowering more Northern Virginia businesses with high growth potential. Herndon becomes the fifth Northern Virginia locale to partner with Mason Enterprise, joining Fairfax, Arlington, Fauquier County, and Springfield.

And the Virginia SBDC is also going global. Its International Business Development Program was a stage one and a stage two winner in the 2023 Growth Accelerator Fund Competition from the U.S. Small Business Administration. It received $50,000 and then $150,000 to build strategic partnerships that will support the launch, growth, and scale of STEM and research and development-focused small businesses that target international markets.

Research Impacting Society

Mason Enterprise operates two federal programs in support of all Virginia universities: the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, designed to guide researchers and students on the first steps toward commercializing a technical discovery, and the National Institutes of Health’s REACH program, which funds proof-of-concept research for promising biohealth technologies.

Sorrell and her team are also mentoring entrepreneurs through the annual Accelerate Investor Conference, which is an investor event and start-up business competition held at Mason Square that showcases the mid-Atlantic region as a powerhouse for innovation and business opportunity.

The competition fuels innovation-based business growth by showcasing the best and brightest new tech start-ups to potential investors to foster their development within the region.

Among those angel investors and companies supplying prize money to Accelerate entrepreneurs was Mason alum Sumeet Shrivastava, MBA ’94. A leader in the government IT industry, Shrivastava recently launched the Shrivastava Family Refugee and Immigrant Success through Entrepreneurship (RISE) Program, which focuses on mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs from refugee and immigrant back-grounds. Nanomaterial research and development company NanoBioFAB received the Shrivastava Family RISE Program prize at last fall’s conference.

Mason’s Costello College of Business Patriot Pitch Competition offers support and resources to student-led start-ups. Now in its 23rd year, the competition is open to all Mason students and recent alumni and attracted 50 teams from across the university last year. Powering the success of the student and alumni pitch teams were more than a dozen mentors who are CEOs, consultants, entrepreneurs, start-up coaches, Mason faculty, and alumni. By sharing their real-world experience in launching and managing start-ups, mentors were incredibly valuable to the teams.

The finalists, including Singh, pitched to judging panels of local business leaders whose professional experience included consulting, derivatives exchange, energy consulting, food technology, nonprofits, and venture capital.

The Mason Innovation Exchange, also known as the MIX, is also part of Mason Enterprise and helps student entrepreneurs. With its makerspace and fabrication lab, a digital media lab, and a start-up incubator, the MIX offers creative thinkers everything from metal fabrication to business mentoring. It is open to all members of the Mason community regardless of their major or affiliation. Currently, there are six student start-ups in the MIX’s incubator. Mentors meet individually with student entrepreneurs and provide a range of business advice.

In 2023, the Virginia Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) recognized Gisele Stolz, senior director of entrepreneurship and innovation programs at Mason, with an Impact Award for her work with its cyber-security start-up internship program.

“From envisioning the internship program to building out the structure of the Commonwealth Cyber Incubator and Accelerator Program cohort programming, few people within the CCI network have had such a widespread impact as Gisele,” says Liza Wilson Durant, associate provost for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Mason and director of the CCI Northern Virginia Node.

Under Stolz’s stewardship, the internship program attracted more than 700 applicants, placing 83 Mason undergraduates with more than 50 companies. Of the students placed, 73 percent received offers for follow-up positions with their host company, including full-time employment.

Beyond this internship program, the CCI Northern Virginia Node, led by Mason and headquartered at Mason Square in Arlington, supported experiential learning opportunities for more than 3,000 students, including more than 100 internships and apprenticeships in cybersecurity.

A student adjusts their project on a 3D printer, one of many in a row.
The MIX's makerspace enables Mason students to create prototypes of their inventions. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding

Talent Development = Workforce Development

All these Mason opportunities align with the university’s vision of graduating students who can power Northern Virginia’s economic engine and serve in areas of critical need, while also providing a pathway of opportunity to all Virginians.

“Mason is committed to providing novel and varied experiential learning opportunities for our students, preparing our workforce for the future and readying them to compete on a global scale,” says Andre Marshall, vice president of research, innovation, and economic impact at Mason.

The need for well-trained health professionals, across disciplines and among fields, is one of the most critical issues facing communities in Virginia and throughout the nation. The Mason Center for the Health Workforce was established in 2022 to help address the shortage in Virginia. The center supports the development and delivery of public-private strategies to optimize physical and behavioral health career education and postgraduate skill training. It also serves as a technical assistance center for health workforce research, program evaluation, and planning and analysis for government agencies, academic entities, and professional organizations.

Mason’s Center for Community Mental Health in Fairfax is unique in its dual function as both a working clinic and a training facility. Last year, the center helped train 77 undergraduates and 57 graduate students while providing more than 2,100 therapy sessions to the community.

In 2019, Mason joined the commonwealth’s Tech Talent Investment Program (TTIP). The top TTIP goal is to build and sustain a diverse tech talent pathway, and Mason, as the largest and most diverse public university in Virginia, and the largest producer of technology talent among four-year institutions in the state, is poised to lead.

At that time, Mason agreed to educate about 30 percent of the 25,000 additional graduates in tech fields over the next two decades to serve regional and state employers, including Amazon and its HQ2. Mason continues to exceed its goals. In 2023, Mason was 281 percent over its bachelor of science target and 192 percent over its master of science target in terms of graduating students in computing and computing-related majors.

Mason is also working to add faculty members in computer science and related fields to teach and mentor these students. The College of Engineering and Computing will soon expand into Fuse at Mason Square. The college is already working to build robust curricula for students in Arlington and provides ample opportunities to explore skills through research opportunities, state-of-the-art labs, hackathons and competitions, and student organizations.

Quang Vo in a VR headset, his hand extended with a controller
Computer science student Quang Vo demonstrated virtual reality applications that will be part of the visualization labs at Fuse at Mason Square. Photo by Ron Aira/Office of University Branding

If You Build It…

From Mason Square in Arlington to the Science and Technology Campus in Manassas, Mason is building a new economic corridor along Route 66 in Northern Virginia.

Fuse at Mason Square, the university’s LEED Platinum building opening this summer, is a digital innovation center that will house research and development labs, corporate centers, incubators, accelerators, and convening spaces, alongside classrooms and retail spaces.

The SciTech Campus is home to the new outdoor Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory—or “body farm,” one of only eight in the country—and the Biomedical Research Lab, one of 12 biosafety level-3 labs in the nation.

New to this campus is the Nanofabrication Facility, which is the only cleanroom facility and resource of its kind for partners in Northern Virginia and offers hands-on nanofabrication workforce training in research applications that will accelerate the growth of high-tech companies.

“The most powerful asset we offer is opportunity,” says Marshall. “Only through providing opportunity can we educate, inspire, and equip the next generation of leaders to solve the grand challenges of our day.”

Jennifer Anzaldi, Sarah Holland, John Hollis, Katie Maney, and Ryley McGinnis contributed to this feature.