Tom Tom takes aim at local innovation

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The Tom Tom Founders Festival includes weekly innovation panels leading up to the May 11 and 12 festival weekend. (Image by Tom Tom Founders Festival)

The weekend of music that caps off the Tom Tom Founders Festival in May will draw 40 acts and has generated plenty of buzz, but over the course of the next month, festival organizers are steering the city’s attention to a series of talks that put business innovation, not bands, in the spotlight.

Expanding the scope of Tom Tom to include weekly innovation panels satisfied a twin itch for Oliver Platts-Mills, an analyst at a Charlottesville  investment firm. When he met Tom Tom co-founder Paul Beyer during Beyer’s City Council campaign last year, Platts-Mills said the two Charlottesville natives talked a lot about the city’s image, which, to the rest of the world, tends to center on Monticello, UVA and the Blue Ridge.

“It starts to sound like a retirement community, or a place where the wealthy come to play,” Platts-Mills said. That’s part of the city’s identity, he acknowleged. “But that image didn’t entirely match up with what we were seeing, which is a lot of people churning ideas, being creative and trying to do things here in Charlottesville.”
He also wanted to make sure that the month-long celebration of all things creative cast a wide net.

“When people talk about creativity and creative people, they’re often thinking of artists and musicians,” he said. “It bugs me, because I think creativity is much broader than that. Some of the most creative people I know are doctors, or are starting small businesses.”
Enter the innovation panels: weekly gatherings of entrepreneurial minds getting together to talk about how to keep pushing Charlottesville to be an incubator for small business startups and emerging industries, and how to keep great thinkers in town.

The foundation is already here, said Platts-Mills. Charlottesville makes up for what it lacks in proximity to major markets with a quality talent pool, he said, and the city’s small size can be an asset. Consider the model of tech superpower Bell Labs, whose scientists developed everything from lasers to C++ programming and have netted seven Nobel prizes in the last century: “They basically created this place where they’d bring talented, creative, smart people together and designed a space where they’d have to run into each other,” said Platts-Mills. “Charlottesville is that place.”

What’s more, it’s a small enough network that aspiring entrepreneurs can rub elbows with doers, and learn from them directly. “In San Francisco or New York, you can meet people who are doing stuff, but in Charlottesville, you can meet the person,” Platts-Mills said.

The idea of accessing the city’s brainpower helped them select panelists for the weekly discussions at the Gleason Building on Garrett Street. Oliver Kuttner, head of the Automotive X Prize-winning engineering firm Edison2, will talk sustainability with Joey Conover of green design-and-build firm Latitude 38. The founders of microlender Community Investment Collaborative will discuss social entrepreneurship alongside City Councilor Dave Norris, whose Charlottesville Institute aims to put UVA’s brainpower to work solving city problems. Tobias Dengel of app-maker Willow tree will take aim at social media with media marketing firm VibeThink’s Ryan Derose. And executives from a handful of biotech startups will share thoughts on Charlottesville’s role as a new industry hub, with input from Mark Crowell, UVA’s patent and innovation guru.

Martin Chapman, the Indoor Biotechnologies founder who is turning the old Preston Avenue Coca Cola bottling plant into a lab space for startup biotech companies, said the innovation talks foster the kind of conversations that have to happen before ideas turn into action.

“Those kind of social interactions are really important,” Chapman said. And crossover is key: He’s a panelist for the biotech talk, but he thinks the festival founders did well to include a range of topics, because the thought processes for dreaming up new solutions are similar whether the thinker is a PhD developing a new drug or a kid with an idea for a new smartphone app.

“There are all sorts of areas where they might overlap, and someone might throw in an idea out of the blue and say, ‘I don’t know anything about it, but what if you did this?’” Chapman said. “It challenges peoples’ ideas, and it can strengthen what they finally end up doing.”

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