News Column

New Nonprofit Group Fosters Entrepreneurial Spirit

Nov. 27, 2012

Nate Delesline III, The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va.

Startup Virginia

A statewide startup nonprofit group wants entrepreneurs to know that guidance, networking, fresh talent and potential investors are just a click away.

Startup Virginia, founded in January by the Startup America Partnership, wants to strengthen the connections that allow startup companies to thrive.

Launched in 2011, Startup America is funded by about a half-dozen private corporate sponsors including American Airlines and Microsoft, according to its website.

Dozens of University of Virginia students, successful entrepreneurs, investors and local business leaders gathered Monday at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration's Innovation Laboratory for networking and a panel discussion over lunch about the resources available and the challenges that face the local entrepreneurial community.

"Research universities are this deep reservoir of technical innovation," said Thomas C. Skalak, UVa's vice president for research. "This movement is about moving ideas to market in a more rapid way. It is about the realization that [America is] still in the lead."

Donna Harris, managing director of startup regions for Startup America, urged the group not to be discouraged by the challenge of finding investors and startup capital.

"We have amassed literally billions of dollars of resources, for you, for free," Harris told the group. "There's something in there for you."

Startup Virginia has more than 500 members, according to the organization's website. The UVa event was the first of a statewide tour that include visits to Richmond, Blacksburg, Arlington, Hampton Roads and Roanoke.

Aneesh Chopra, who served as the first ever federal chief technology officer under President Barack Obama, and recently announced a bid for lieutenant governor as a Democrat, said Virginia's legislators, community and business leaders must work to diversify the state's economy, which is heavily dependent on military and federal spending.

Chopra said he believes initiatives like Startup Virginia can help the state do a better job of turning good ideas into sustainable, commercially viable concepts and products.

"Big companies grow and shrink, true small businesses disappear and grow, but that which expands the economic pie are startups," Chopra said.

Although Charlottesville has gained attention for its numerous emerging biotech-oriented companies, Skalak said the local community is very capable and well positioned to launch and support entrepreneurial ventures in other fields.

"We're very eager to get proof of concept funding in place for [information technology], physical sciences and humanities, and arts, and design-oriented fields, because much of innovation is driven by the combination of arts, science and engineering," Skalak said.

A solid business plan and good funding are important, but Bill Walker, a founder of biotech firm HemoSonics and a UVa professor of biomedical engineering, said it's also important to follow your instincts and sense of timing.

When deciding to push an early stage product toward commercialization, "It just smelled right," Walker told the group. "And if you're an entrepreneur, you know what this is -- or you will."

Other featured speakers included Spencer Ingram, founder of HackCville, a self-described "24/7 startup house," Greg Fralish, a co-founder of ITI Health and Adam Healey, founder of search engine Hotelicopter and a new venture with his wife Christin, Borrowed & Blue, an online wedding planning service that emphasizes local flair.

Healey said events like Monday's gathering are important for both business owners at all levels and in all sectors.

"So much of starting up a business is who you know and getting introduced to people who can help grow your business," Healey said. "You can always learn something new from your colleagues."

Source: (c)2012 The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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