Entrepreneurs Thrive in Charlottesville

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By Marilyn Pribus

“Charlottesville is a unique place,” declares Payam Pourtaheri, a co-founder of AgroSpheres, one of the many new businesses born right here where he says the entrepreneurial spirit is very strong. “There’s the feeling we’re all in this together. Everyone is supportive—you reach for help and it’s there. There are so many successful entrepreneurs.”

Pourtaheri is absolutely right. In fact, just last summer Entrepreneur magazine placed Charlottesville at #4 on its list of 50 top cities for entrepreneurs. Included in the calculations were cost of living, business tax rates, percentage of college grads in the community, the growth of well-paying jobs, and other factors such as the number of venture capital deals over the past decade.

Start-up Money
The availability of start-up money is a biggie, of course, and the National Venture Capital Association recently ranked Charlottesville as the nation’s fastest-growing venture capital community with start-up funding for local companies leaping from $250,000 to more than $27 million in just five years between 2010 and 2015.  Start-up companies benefit from some of the programs offering substantial financial recognition such as UVA’s Entrepreneurship Cup and Galant Challenge.

Last April, for example, the AgroSpheres team received more than $20,000 in the Entrepreneurship Cup competition. The team has won other awards and grants as well, garnering enough seed money to grow their company here in central Virginia. Beginning as “a few science geeks working on a cool summer research project,” AgroSpheres seeks to revolutionize the agriculture industry by developing non-toxic, environmentally friendly sprays that can degrade insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. This has clear benefits for the environment as well as people working with agricultural products and is now being tested in local vineyards and orchards.

UVA Is a Major Influence
UVA is another major factor in this entrepreneurial equation. Various companies have worked directly with the university to bring its research to the commercial market, especially through the Darden School of Business. (The Financial Times, an international financial publication, named Darden as the #3 MBA program for entrepreneurship in the world.)

“The university is so important,” emphasizes Pourtaheri, himself a recent graduate with a BS in Nanomedicine. He cites various UVA schools including Commerce, Engineering, and Medicine as contributing to successful entrepreneurs.

“There’s a summer incubator program,” he says, “and WIP [Work in Progress] that’s through the engineering school.”  UVA also offers a specific undergraduate program in entrepreneurship and sponsors i.Lab, a University-wide entrepreneurship initiative with cross-collaboration among eleven UVA schools.

Pourtaheri gives particular credit to interaction with UVA faculty member Dr. Mark Kester whose own research focusses on nanotechnologies. “He’s an AgroSpheres co-founder and our Chief Scientific Officer and a main reason we got going,” Pourtaheri explains. “He pushed us to look outside of the lab and see the potential impact we could have on the world.”

And there’s more. Student-powered programs such as Hack Cville—a sort of incubator providing space and resources for UVA students involved in innovation and entrepreneurship—also add to the climate of support for new firms.

Individual Entrepreneurs
What about individuals who aren’t connected with UVA, yet seek to create their own small businesses?  Just ask Charlottesville native Andrea Copeland-Whitsett who is active with the Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce as well as many other local associations including the Community Investment Collaborative (CIC).

Positive Community Support
“Charlottesville is a culturally progressive community that supports businesses who seek to create a positive social impact,” says Cynthia Adams, CEO of Pearl Home Certification. Adams was the past Executive Director of the Charlottesville-based nonprofit Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), and her experience running that company gave rise to Pearl, an organization that verifies the value of environmental upgrades such as solar panels and energy efficient components.

“Our main investors live right in the area,” says Adams, “and several local REALTORS® were involved during our pilot phases as services were developed. The certification of upgrades ensures they are included in appraisals so homeowners can recoup the value of their ‘green’ improvements for refi [refinancing] or resale.”

Charlottesville’s entrepreneurial spirit clearly attracts ambitious and motivated people to our community to work and live. For example, we asked whether AgroSpheres will stay in Charlottesville. “Definitely,” says Pourtaheri. “We’ve had the chance to move elsewhere, but it wouldn’t be right to leave. We love the support we have here. We’re excited to wake up each day.”


Marilyn Pribus and her husband live near Charlottesville.

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