What makes tech take off?

In our first-ever Tech Issue, we’re taking a look at four relatively young startups whose founders chose to root them here. Their reasons for doing so are varied, and so are their ventures. But whether they’re in app development or designing cancer cures, they share an outlook we see again and again among local technology entrepreneurs. They know there are roadblocks on the road to making Charlottesville a tech hub, and they don’t shy away from pointing them out—it’s hard to recruit talent, and raising capital can be tough if your city’s not on the startup scene short list. But they’re relentlessly optimistic about being able to grow here—and they want to pull others up with them.

We’ve also fired off some questions to a handful of locals whose perspectives on the tech industry we think are worth a long look—because they’re tapped into the idea well that is UVA, because they’ve been around the block a couple of times, because they’re working for change from the inside out.

Are they famous titans of tech? Nope. But they’re helping lead and shape an industry that is changing Charlottesville’s identity. Here’s what they have to say.

Ashwin Kamlani and the Regatta team at their Pantops office. Photo: Amanda Maglione

Regatta Travel Solutions

Opening up the Web for the travel industry

It’s one of those common Web-enabled conveniences that’s easy to take for granted: When you’re headed out of town for a weekend away or a vacation abroad, you hunt down a hotel online, click a few buttons to check availability, punch in your credit card number and voilà.

But remote booking is actually pretty complicated, explained Ashwin Kamlani, founder of Regatta Travel Solutions, an online booking engine based here in Charlottesville.

“That system has to know exactly how many rooms of each type are available at any given time,” he said, “and the hotel has to have the ability to change their rates up and down.”

Ten years ago, Kamlani was helping run just such a system for a major Spanish hotel chain. He had started his career as a technology consultant for multinational firms Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers, then returned to school to study hotel administration at Cornell. Working at the nexus of tech and hospitality, he could see how critical the Web was becoming for travel and tourism.

“My goal was to book as many people as possible online,” he said. “We could do it, because we were a big hotel with a lot of resources and an e-commerce team. An independent hotel doesn’t have any of those things.”

Online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity offer online booking and access to a wide user base for those who can’t build their own platforms. But Kamlani said the 20 percent commissions charged by such sites can be prohibitive for many smaller and international hotels.

So he created something they could use. Regatta sets up custom online booking systems for hotels and tourism sites, and charges half the commission of the big online agencies. The plugins for websites are designed to do more than just let customers make reservations, Kamlani said. For instance, their systems can let hoteliers offer deals to target demographics in a certain part of the world by scanning IP addresses.

His staff of eight works out of an office on Pantops, and has customers around the world—and a stone’s throw away. Visit Charlottesville, the region’s official tourism arm, contracts with Regatta.

“My dream is that one day, this company goes big and we have a huge office in Charlottesville, and we’re employing tons of people in the area and it does start to attract more business.”

The story of how Kamlani ended up here is a familiar one for those in the local tech industry, whose transferable, mobile careers can mean a lot of freedom in choosing a home base. He and his wife were living in Miami when he launched Regatta, but were dreaming of moving to an ideal place to raise family. At a social media conference, he happened to sit next to somebody who worked in tourism in Virginia.

“I described the Utopian ideal of where we might want to raise our kids, and he said, ‘Have you ever heard of Charlottesville?’” Kamlani remembered. A visit sealed the deal.

And the city has a lot to recommend it as an anchoring spot for startups, he said. Tech entrepreneurs aren’t a dime a dozen the way they are in Silicon Valley, for one thing.

“It’s a relatively small community, and we kind of know each other well,” Kamlani said.

But the flip side, he said, is that deep-pocketed investors in the big tech capitals sometimes don’t take you seriously. “They think, ‘That’s a lifestyle business. This guy’s not out to be a successful entrepreneur, he just wants to live where he wants to live and have his cushy job for 20 years.’ There’s a stigma.”

Another stumbling block can be lack of business infrastructure. Kamlani offers his own experience trying to find a bank as an example. Travel-related merchant accounts, which allow businesses to accept payments by credit card, are considered high-risk by banks, because there’s a lot of fraud in that space, Kamlani said. He knew that, and tried to do his homework ahead of time when he was moving his fledgling business to Charlottesville. The bank he found assured him he’d have no problems.

“Then, within a month, they shut my merchant account down,” he said. “I literally got a letter from the corporate office of the bank saying, ‘We saw your company has the word travel in it, and we’re suspending your account.’”

But like so many here, he’s optimistic that Charlottesville will soon reach a kind of entrepreneurial critical mass. He’s begun work on a new tech venture called Minikast, an app designed to work with venues and theme parks that would put real-time updates and promotions in travelers hands. It, too, will be based here.

“My dream is that one day, this company goes big and we have a huge office in Charlottesville, and we’re employing tons of people in the area and it does start to attract more business,” he said. “That would be amazing.”

Q & A


 

Joe Feminella Contributed photo

John Feminella is a software developer and serial entrepreneur who has launched and sold a number of ventures in Charlottesville. His current project is UpHex, which monitors analytics for digital marketing agencies.


Who’s your business idol?

Gail Goodman, the CEO of Constant Contact. She is a really great counterpoint for the idea that startups should be about blowing up as quickly as possible. Sometimes slow and steady (and profitable) wins the race.

What needs to happen for Charlottesville’s tech scene to take off?

Three things: (1) more diversity in people entering the tech scene and in the types of companies getting started; (2) willingness from investors to devote capital to companies that don’t want to move to Silicon Valley; (3) support from the community to build an ecosystem and infrastructure of healthy businesses to serve as social proof to others. Selfishly, I hope we don’t take off too much—I like it here, and cities that are regional tech hubs tend to become very expensive to live in.

Any advice to someone thinking of starting his or her own company?

Before you go through the hassle of starting a company, if you want to validate your idea, try to sell your product or service to just one person that you don’t know and have never met before. A sale is worth a thousand business plans.

Whit Faulconer believes his company, Bubuti, can use social media and blogging platforms to harness people's desire to do good. Photo: Amanda Maglione

Bubuti

Putting social responsibility into social media

Whit Faulconer didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a do-gooder. Back in the ’90s when he was in his early 20s, he had an idea about a nonprofit music label that he discussed with a local guy named Dave Matthews.

Now 45, Faulconer is still passionate about “trying to understand people’s desires” in a way that helps charities. And his idea is now called Bubuti, a company he started in 2011 to make it easier to do good.

“Nonprofits are behind the curve in technology,” he said. Every minute, 278,000 tweets are posted on Twitter, 41,000 posts are added to Facebook and 347 blog posts go up on WordPress, according to his company’s website. Bubuti is a way for charities to benefit from all this connectivity, he explained; it offers crowd-sourcing add-ons that are easy to incorporate into blogging platforms.

Faulconer, whose own background is in nonprofits, points out that for every issue, there’s a correlating nonprofit dedicated to improving that situation. He also notes there are a lot of people on the Internet making life more interesting. So what if you connected bloggers and charities?

“Our best success stories are to come.”

“If bloggers incorporate some sort of social benefit, we’re going to show them how many more people they reach having done so,” he said. And social media-mad millennials are future donors and future directors of nonprofits, said Faulconer, providing a new audience for slow-to-change nonprofits that usually target high net-worth people.

Since Bubuti’s inception, it’s been a learning curve. “The next version we’re releasing this spring takes everything we’ve been learning,” said Faulconer. “Our best success stories are to come.”

For native son Faulconer, starting a business in Charlottesville would seem to be a no-brainer, given the area’s well-touted quality of life, but, there are problems locating in a small city. “It’s an issue I struggle with on a daily basis,” he said. The toughest part is finding the talent to grow his company in the millennial sector, and there’s not the same wealth of startup experience that one finds on the West Coast or in Denver. “I’d like to be able to fill a position and not have it takes six months,” he said. “That’s a huge amount of time for a startup.”

Otherwise, there’s money here, affordable office space, an airport, and proximity to other markets like D.C. and Richmond. But, Faulconer warned he’d consider relocating if the lack of resources becomes a constraint. “I will not sacrifice the viability of my company,” he said.

Q & A


 

Kim Wilkens Contributed photo

Kim Wilkens started her career at IBM in Austin and then became an independent tech consultant when she moved to Charlottesville in 1998. She has taught technology in schools since 2001, and is currently co-coordinator of the computer science initiative at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. In 2012 she founded Tech-Girls, a nonprofit that encourages girls’ interest in STEM fields.


 

 

Who’s your business idol?

The people I admire most in the tech industry are those who have a vision for making the world a better place and are able to bring that vision to life. Kimberly Bryant, an engineer and mom, was looking for coding activities that would appeal to her daughter, but found there was a dearth of any opportunities. She founded Black Girls Code to bring access and exposure to technology in a way that is engaging to this underrepresented group. Closer to home, Vanessa Hurst, a UVA computer science graduate, founded CodeMontage to empower coders to improve their impact on the world, and she founded Girl Develop It to provide judgment-free environments for adult women (and men) to learn to code.

What needs to happen for Charlottesville’s tech scene to take off?

I think the tech scene in Charlottesville has taken off. It’s more a question of how can it sustain and grow. One challenge I hear over and over from tech companies is the ability to find the STEM talent needed to grow, and this is not a problem isolated to Charlottesville. We are fortunate that many of our local educational institutions are ahead of the curve in embracing 21st century learning to prepare their students for the ever-changing landscape of technology.

What can companies do to encourage women to pursue careers in technology fields?

There is no silver bullet to address the issue of gender equity and diversity in tech. What it requires is a combination of long-term effort, implementing creative, not business-as-usual ideas and the building of strong partnerships and collaborations across the pipeline. Tech leaders and companies need to be part of the long-term solution to address the stereotypes, biases and lack of role models in the industry that keep girls and women away. Gender stereotypes and biases rear their ugly heads during middle school, pushing many girls away, so companies can support programs that give girls positive, hands-on experience with tech while building a supportive community around them…Keeping girls engaged and excited about tech through high school is critical to keeping them in the pipeline, so they can provide mentoring and internship opportunities. Women returning to the workforce or looking to switch careers could be a valuable resource with support and training from programs like Girl Develop It [a national nonprofit offering software development training to women]. The importance of ensuring their corporate culture is welcoming of diversity.

Since she was in grade school, Kimberly Kelly has wanted to cure disease. Her company iTi, spun out of UVA biomedical research, is aiming to do just that with technology that can detect pancreatic cancer early and allow for targeted drug delivery. Photo: Amanda Maglione

iTi

Targeting a deadly cancer

Steve Jobs. Patrick Swayze. Emily Couric. One can’t read the news without hearing about another celebrity diagnosis of an almost assuredly fatal cancer. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former UVA women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan fall into the dismally small club of pancreatic cancer survivors.

Kimberly Kelly, 40, co-founder of iTi and a University of Virginia associate professor of biomedical engineering, thinks she can change the grim stats of a disease that has a 6 percent survival rate and is the fourth leading cause of cancer death—and expected to reach No. 2 by 2030.

“We’re developing technology to hopefully increase the number of survivors of pancreatic cancer, focusing on early detection of cancer and targeted drug delivery,” she said. “We’re using technology I’ve developed, and I think we can make a difference.” That technology spots pancreatic cancer cells before they metastasize, when they’re most treatable.

Kelly’s career in biomedical engineering and cancer research was foreshadowed when she was a sixth grader in upstate New York and was featured in her hometown newspaper, The Post Star, in an article titled “She plans to find cures for diseases.”

She was recruited down here from Massachusetts General Hospital, and she raves about how supportive UVA and the local community were when she started iTi in 2010.

“I really think this is a great, great place to do work that benefits humanity.”

Former UVA vice president of research Thomas Skalak, who has gone on to work for the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and is a biomedical engineer himself, helped establish a culture of innovation in the biomedical engineering department, said Kelly, and he helped her department secure a Coulter Foundation grant that provides money and mentorship for faculty to translate their research discoveries into the clinic.

The University also helped her find angel investors and provided flexibility with her regular job at the school to work at iTi, which she said is completely separate from UVA.

Getting the funding is crucial, because it brings ideas from the lab to clinical trials to commercialization, and that last step “means people use it,” said Kelly.

And she sees an “optimism” in the Commonwealth and the University in investing in startups like hers.

The company has been approved to conduct a clinical trial and has already begun recruiting people to take part.

“I really think this is a great, great place to do work that benefits humanity,” she said.

Q & A


 

Contributed photo

Patrick Keith-Hynes is chief technical officer for TypeZero Technologies, LLC, as well as assistant research professor at UVA’s Center for Diabetes Technology. The company was formed in 2014, and seeks to improve blood glucose management in diabetes patients.


 

Who’s your business idol?

Elon Musk is my current-day business idol. He thinks big and transforms industries with style.

What needs to happen for Charlottesville’s tech scene to take off?

Charlottesville needs more seed funding (in the $100,000 to $1 million range) to support early-stage ventures so that they can get on with the process of figuring out how their technology becomes their business. Many investors tend to want startup founders to provide more information than is possible at an early stage. A high-risk/high-return seed fund could help.

Any advice to someone thinking of starting his or her own company?

Choose partners who are low-maintenance and can handle stress. Be willing to reconsider your strategies—they will inevitably need to change as you learn more about your team, your business and yourself.

Joel Selzer co-founded ArcheMedX to bring research-backed innovations to online learning for health professionals. Photo: Amanda Maglione

ArcheMedX

Making online learning work

In 2011, Joel Selzer had already been in the realm of health tech for years. A 2005 Darden grad, he was working in Washington, D.C. on Ozmosis*, which creates collaboration tools for healthcare organizations, when he got a call from Brian McGowan, a Ph.D. who headed up medical education for Pfizer. McGowan was working on a book, and wanted to interview Selzer about online learning for health professionals: Where were the stumbling blocks, and how could they be knocked down?

They’re still working to answer those questions today.

Their early conversations led to a research study the following year, and not long after, the two founded ArcheMedX, an adaptable online learning platform specifically for educators and learners in the health fields.

“As adult learners, what the research and science shows is that you can only fit so much information in your brain at one time,” said Selzer, who moved back to Charlottesville in 2012. The idea of a video lecture via the Web is appealing to educators—it’s cheap and easy to deliver. But what Selzer and McGowan saw was that most continuing education conferences and online training for clinicians throw way too much at participants at once, and are one-size-fits-all, with little room for customization. To get around the high dropout rate and lack of information retention that plague so many online learning efforts, you need structure and engagement to trigger the brain, said Selzer. ArcheMedX creates the bones of the structure for medical educators, he explained.

While you watch a lecture or presentation on one of their platforms, “you’re being prompted to take a note, run a search,” he said. “The educators can virtually tap you on the shoulder.”

If you’re being taught new clinical guidelines for taking care of patients with Alzheimer’s, for instance, a journal article might pop up, pre-highlighted and ready for you to pause and peruse.

“We need more opportunities for entrepreneurs to build highly scalable ventures that have the potential to succeed.”

The company now powers online learning activities for thousands of health care professionals at hundreds of facilities across the country, Selzer said, and just received an innovation award from the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions. But he likes to tout metrics instead of accolades. ArcheMedX is designed to track its own measures of success, and Selzer said the numbers show the model works: Program completion rates average over 75 percent, which is three times better than the average in online education, he said, and before-and-after tests show significant knowledge gain.

It’s easy to see why Charlottesville, with a top-flight university and a booming medical industry, would appeal as a home for a company like Selzer’s. But he said locating here is also about seeing potential in a market that could be coaxed into fostering a wide range of innovation.

“You have research that can be transferred out of the University,” Selzer said. “You have bright students, some of whom want to stay. You have a number of tech entrepreneurs who want to grow a bigger and more supportive ecosystem, which is critical, and a lot of members of the community who want to support the same end.”

But like so many in the region’s growing tech fields, he believes there’s work to do. When he talks with other entrepreneurs, he said, they agree: For there to be more successful ventures here, there have to be more attempts.

“How do you score? Ultimately, you take the most shots on goal,” he said. “It’s simple math. The more shots, the more chances you have. We need more shots on goal. We need more opportunities for entrepreneurs to build highly scalable ventures that have the potential to succeed.”

There are lots of ways to get there, he said. One is to keep the idea engine spinning at UVA, where there’s a structure for turning research into patented technologies. Another is for companies and people within the University system to sell Charlottes-ville hard to the young talent here. But maybe most importantly, he said, everybody in the local tech scene needs to find ways to tell their stories and advertise their successes—inside the community and out. He saw it happen in D.C. over the better part of a decade.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It took a concentration of a key group of folks creating events and news and this continuing wave of energy around the ecosystem.” But once it starts, “it’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”

*We initially reported Selzer’s first company was called Osmosis, which is a separate tech company.