The Virginia Velocity Tour Kicks Off
Day 1 of the Virginia Velocity Tour: Roanoke/Blacksburg
A decade ago, downtown Roanoke, Virginia had 15 people living in it. Today, it’s 2,000, and rapidly growing. Cities are always rising and falling in America, and Roanoke, the “Magic City,” has been on a roller coaster. In 1881, Roanoke was a backwoods crossroads of 650 people when the Western Railway set up town. The city grew two hundred and ninety per cent — per year — until it quickly became the third-biggest city in Virginia. Roanoke became the “big city” for the entire region, Yet in the early 1980s, the major railroad merged with Norfolk Southern, and lost thousands of jobs. The city was left for dead — until very recently.
Today, we’re seeing a different story. Roanoke has a thriving food, music, and startup scene that is attracting people from across the region. For the first time in nearly four decades, the population will cross 100,000 in the next couple of years — over 40% of that will be transplants to the city.
Yesterday morning, we at Village Capital kicked off the Virginia Velocity Tour at the CoLab co-working space in central Roanoke, one of the jewels in the city’s re-development. The Virginia Velocity Tour is an initiative that we at Village Capital launched with Governor Terry McAuliffe and the Commonwealth of Virginia to find, support, and invest in startups across the commonwealth. This week, we’ll be visiting five metro areas — Roanoke-Blacksburg, Richmond, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, and Charlottesville — on a literal bus tour to support the best early-stage entrepreneurs. One startup in each region will receive a $25,000 grant from the Commonwealth to kick-start their business.
Sound familiar? The tour is inspired by the Rise of the Rest Tour, an initiative launched by AOL founder Steve Case and his firm Revolution, which we’ve been lucky to partner on over the last several years. The Rise of the Rest Tour over the past three years has visited 20 cities across the country, helping cities become their best selves for the next generation.
When the Rise of the Rest Tour visited Richmond in May 2015, Senator Tim Kaine was asked how Richmond could attract more investment capital. He said he had observed that if you created a place where people wanted to be, the capital would follow. “In this century, capital follows talent; not the other way around.”
We’re seeing a renaissance in Blacksburg and Roanoke that is echoing this maxim, which I’ve found to be true across the country. Yesterday, September 19th, we kicked off the tour at the Co-Lab with Roanoke’s City Manager, Chris Morrill, and local and national leaders in broadband to discuss how the area can provide fast enough internet to encourage and retain the city’s top technical talent. We visited TMEIC, the market leader in industrial-grade solar inverters, based in Roanoke because its thousands of employees prefer the quality of life. We looked at TORC Robotics, a leader in autonomous vehicles, and Aeroprobe, a top supplier to the aerospace industry (Blacksburg is one of only a few FAA-certified drone test sites) — both of which were founded by Virginia Tech grads who wanted to stay in the area. We saw a region where talented people want to build great companies.
That’s not to say there are not challenges, not the least of which is talent. “We’re doing great in the under-25s, and in the 35-and-overs,” says Robert McAden, the head of the Blacksburg-based Rackspace and Chair of the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council, in reference to the talent shortage. “But we struggle to keep people more than a year or two out of Virginia Tech, and we need to do better recruiting them when they want to settle down.”
We heard the same story over again: there are a huge host of entrepreneurs right out of Virginia Tech — especially exceptional engineers — who have great ideas but look for and find opportunity elsewhere. Then, when they are ready to buy homes and have families, they come back, but there’s a highly productive lost decade of talent.
There may be a challenge, but there is also great potential, and the winners of the Virginia Velocity Tour’s first pitch competition represent it.
We had six great startups pitch for the $25,000, and the winning company, FluxTeq, is a homegrown technology from Virginia Tech that acts as a “FitBit for your house.” FluxTeq monitors energy inflows and outflows from commercial and residential buildings, and helps you cut your energy costs by as much as 40%. The founders, Chris and Rande, are Virginia Tech students who unfortunately, after graduating from the university, have been kicked out of their lab space. They have an interim solution in Blacksburg right now, but are just hoping to raise the money — or even get the lab space! — to give them a reason to stay in the region.
Chris and Rande aren’t alone. To be successful, the angel investors of Roanoke-Blacksburg need to coordinate and syndicate funding, so that great companies aren’t even tempted to leave; the Ramp accelerator needs to build on the community assets in hardware and advanced engineering; and the host of successful entrepreneurs who have made it, and done well, need to invest in the next generation. Of all the cities I’ve visited, Roanoke-Blacksburg may well have the most untapped potential.
Cities are always rising and falling in America, and they are rising and falling based on the talent that wants to live there. The first day of the Virginia Velocity Tour was encouraging precisely because I’ve maybe seen a more direct in-flow of talent as I have in Roanoke-Blacksburg — and a city that is motivated to keep it.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of the day — we kicked off the pitch competition with a presentation from the Tuxedo Pandas, a self-organized group of junior high and high school robotics students who literally wear tuxedo t-shirts and panda hats. They’ve gone to the world championships four years in a row (this year, they’re going for #5 in St. Louis), and nearly all of them want to (a) stay in Roanoke-Blacksburg, and (b) start a company that, in the words of one ninth-grader “does something good for the world.” The Pandas are a vision for the future of what Roanoke-Blacksburg — or really any city in the country could be.
After an enthusiastic start, we’re looking forward to the rest of the week!