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The groundwork has been laid in the region to foster the growth of the technology industry and we appear to be on the verge of a major breakthrough.
Meredith Hundley is blunt about the intention: “These are productive collisions. We’re trying to bump into each other.”
“We” includes a litany of organizations whose primary goal is to invigorate the region’s business and technology climate. Among them:
- Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center (CRC), a 32-year-old technology park that has grown exponentially, has 36 buildings on 210 acres and 200 companies employing 3,300 people.
- Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP), mentoring and some funding for developing businesses.
- The Advancement Foundation, Innovation Mill, The Gauntlet, The Hive are Vinton-based interlocked mentors/funders for startups.
- Valleys Innovation Council (VIC), the latest and most successful iteration of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Innovation Network, helping create an innovation ecosystem.
- The Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority legislation had passed and will now await the governor’s signature. Its intent is to “support the entire life cycle of innovation from transitional research, to entrepreneurship, to pre-seed and seed stage funding, acceleration, growth and commercialization …” The program is expected to “assist … in identifying entrepreneurial strengths, including the identification of talents and resources …”
- Small Business Development Councils (SBDC) help startups find their footing.
- CoLab, business and co-working space in the Raleigh Court area of Roanoke.
- Area colleges have become leaders in working with the business community, especially the community colleges.
- GoVA, a state fund for innovation that has been consolidated and dispensed regionally by business influencers.
- Hundley is chief program officer for the Valleys Innovation Council (VIC), an outcropping of several false-start predecessors and one that seems to have finally gotten it right.
She uses Torc, a Blacksburg company with 120 employees whose genesis dates to 2005, as the best example. Several Virginia Tech graduate students competed on an international stage in an Intelligent Ground Vehicle competition, which they swept, ultimately winning a $1 million grant, leading to Torc’s founding.
Torc, from Day 1, has been an international leader in self-driving truck technology and although Daimler had 1,000 workers in Stuttgart, Germany, working on that, it bought a majority stake in Torc in March of 2019 in order to find success in that area, says Greg Feldman, director of VIC.
Torc, Hundley says, “is the poster child for what we’re trying to do. … It is our regional unicorn.”
Hundley says the ultimate goal is to “work together because we have a shared purpose. It creates a smooth pathway to a sturdy, solid technology component of the region’s economy, one that is staying abreast of national trends. If we do the ecosystem right, we create more stories like Torc.”
The Money Challenge
Money is flowing from a number of sources but remains the most significant problem overall. Much of the infrastructure is in place and is growing. President/CEO Joe Meredith who joined the young Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg in 1997, found four buildings and a few scattered employees at the fledgling facility. He retired in February looking at 36 buildings on 210 acres with 3,300 employees and a huge infusion of dollars into the region’s economy.
Greg Feldman, executive director of the Valleys Innovation Council (VIC), says the support system “is in the best spot in my working lifetime. We have evolved a support mechanism,” but “access to capital” remains a sometimes-elusive element. He points to the $15 million Virginia Tech/Carilion fund, “episodic angel activity” and money funneling to all the support organizations, a lot of it going to individual startups and slightly more mature businesses as encouraging.
Victor Ianello, founder of Synchrony and Radiant Physics, advisor to Carilion on innovation and co-chairman of the VIC, says, “Our goal is to increase the activity and resources in the innovation ecosystem.” He says success is measured by formation and investment in startups, commercializing intellectual property, number of employees and the number and size of exits (or sales).
He points to RAMP, which is “financially supported by higher education institutions, local governments, and private businesses. In addition to the structured learning that is offered in accelerating the growth of start-ups, each company is assigned one or more mentors … local entrepreneurs that have experience with starting, growing, financing, and exiting from technology companies. Developing and fostering this volunteer network of mentors is critical to the success of RAMP.”
RAMP director Mary Miller (founder of the Blacksburg tech company Interactive Design and Development) says, “In addition to our 16-week RAMP-in-Residence e program, we sponsor pitch clinics across the region every other month. The idea is to have a ‘go to’ place to find help. The RAMP-in Residence program is focused on helping early-stage technology companies get the help they need to grow.”
The Advancement Foundation in Vinton has a similar mission, but with startups. Annette Patterson, who founded the foundation and its Gauntlet competition for investment, says the Gauntlet “is a really good tool to attract and retain talented entrepreneurs.” It has grown from 15 competitors in 2014 to 170 from 15 localities, 18% of them in technology this year. It featured 150 mentors and 50 speakers in 2020 and is Virginia’s largest business program and competition, according to Patterson.
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