WillowTree and beyond: Charlottesville’s startup hotspot status

C-VILLE news wire. File photo. C-VILLE news wire. File photo.

When I landed back in Charlottesville this past spring after 10 years in New Jersey, the fact that the area is starting to get national attention as business and tech innovation hub was one of the first things that made me stop and really look around at what had changed in my native city since I was a kid.

The first cover story I penned for C-VILLE hit on this. It was a piece on UVA’s increased focus on tech transfer—the business of patenting and capitalizing on research—in the biotechnology field, which is boomi ng here. There are about two dozen biotech companies based here, and that number’s going up. Among the 20 companies that will be honored with the chance to present findings next month at the Mid-Atlantic Bio Conference, an industry gathering targeting a region with more than 3,600 biotech firms, are two Charlottesville startups. Maybe the city isn’t a powerhouse in the field, but it’s getting noticed.

Local tech growth isn’t limited to pharma. Mobile app developers are putting down roots here, and the best-known among them, WillowTree Apps, just made Inc. magazine’s 2012 list of the country’s 500 fastest-growing private companies.

It certainly makes sense that science and tech would take off in Charlottesville: respected public university, steady stream of bright minds looking for new niches, short drive from a major metropolitan area. But I think a lot of people still don’t know how much the startup scene is bubbling here, and there’s a lot to talk about in terms of what’s working and who’s growing.

Back in March, I sat down with Tom Tom Festival co-organizer Oliver Platts-Mills to talk innovation—one key focus of the month-long arts-and-ideas showcase—and he had an interesting theory on why Charlottesville is so appealing to tech startups: Its relatively small population and high concentration of brainpower makes it a city-sized incubator. Bell Labs, the former innovation superpower that we can thank for a huge range of technological advances, built a model around the same concept: Throw the talent together in a small space and then mingle.

We’re digging into that idea and others in the next week as we take a look at Charlottesville’s tech hub status. If you’re part of the trend—an employee, an innovator, even an iPhone user like, oh, half of us—we’d like to hear from you. Give me a shout: news@c-ville.com.