It may be a throwback to the glam years of the 1990s, but there’s always been an aura about bright minds getting ideas and having the fortitude and guts to push them to fruition without the warm womb of a big corporation or university to keep them nice and safe.
Finally, after years of trying, Charlottesville appears to be on the brink of being just such a place. That’s the premise of a story I just wrote for The Hook, one of the small city’s alternative weekly that sadly is about to go out of business.
The evidence appears solid. There are about 200 startups now underway, mostly in life sciences and information technology. They handle making sure that hospital laboratories have diagnostic equipment that is accurate and help understand how neonatal babies might get sepsis and die. Others tap cloud computing in new ways.
Why Charlottesville? It’s a convergence of several things. The University of Virginia attracts bright people and has excellent graduate schools in law and business plus a well-regarded medical center. The Blue Ridge area attracts free-thinking rich people who have fled Wall Street for the bucolic hills near Monticello. These “angels” have the money to give to promising startups swashbucklers and are willing and able to take risks.
One of these is Jaffray Woodriff, a hedge fund who is from the area and spent some time in New York humping quants before returning home. Described by Institutional Investor as “The Monk of Managed Futures,” he strokes checks for start-ups he likes. As a U.Va. grad, he is sympathetic to struggling Hoos and even goes for the kinds of walkable, urban landscapes you read so much about on this blog. The downtown Mall makes it easy for young entrepreneurs to stroll around sipping lattes and run into friends where they can talk ideas and hatch deals.
Another aspect is the role of U.Va. Teresa Sullivan who has recognized the importance of the school being tech-savvy and pro-entrepreneurial. This is indeed a curiosity since she was attacked for be a tech luddite by members of her board who tried to get rid of her last year.
If anyone was a luddite, it was her predecessor, James Casteen, the fund-raiser par-excellence who didn’t get tech and wanted to keep Mr. Jefferson’s University safely reading history books. Getting conservative preppies to think big and take risks is a major step forward. The progress has been noted by none-other than Richard Florida, the Big Think guy you read so much about. Charlottesville somehow ranks highly in startups per 100,000 population.
Another curiosity I found in my reporting: Richmond is far behind on the start-up curve. That’s right. The self-proclaimed “Capital of Creativity” with its very own biotechnology research park is only now starting to get it together as far as angel or venture capital funding.
Why? One reason is the research done is very heavily focused on secretive –and deadly — corporations like Philip Morris whose products will help kill 1 billion people around the world this century, according to the World Health Organization. Other reasons seem to be a dearth of rich and adventuresome people and a sense of risk aversion among its traditionally very conservative mindset.
Virginia Commonwealth University seems to be gaining some traction under President Michael Rao. But if memory serves, stud duck prez Eugene Trani actually throttled research in favor of a bricks and mortar build out. This isn’t something one is likely to read in the Richmond Times-Dispatch or in the typically mindless blatherings of promoter-in-chief Tom Silvestri, former head of the local Chamber of Commerce. So what else is new?
What could evolve is a new tech corridor linking Charlottesville, a rising Richmond and Northern Virginia, which is stuffed with tech but doesn’t get mentioned because of its reliance on the military and government.
Hoo-Ville is apparently where the Bay Area and Boston were around 1975 to 1980. That may seem a disappointment but at least it is somewhere.