Cities with universities have withstood the recession better than other communities because they rely on a global information economy that’s trending upward. Insulated by private foundation and Federal grant money, buoyed by venture capital, towns like ours are driving whatever growth is left in the national economy. Charlottesville’s startup scene might not rival Silicon Valley’s, or NoVa’s for that matter, but the confluence of academic entrepreneurs and capital has turned the town into a place with a lot of bosses. On a more whimsical note, smart people who like smart towns sometimes create smart businesses that succeed so they can stay. Here’s our list of entrepreneurs with clout.
1. Tom Skalak
UVA Vice President for Research
A biomedical engineer with a record of racking up tens of millions of dollars in research grant money, Skalak was appointed Vice President for Research at UVA in 2008. In 2010, he was a finalist for the presidency of Cal Poly, where his Southern California ties (he did doctoral work at UCSD) made him an attractive candidate. Might not sound like the resumé of an entrepreneur exactly, but if you’re a biotech startup in this town, Skalak is the man you want to convince: Because he oversees roughly $300 million in Federal research money each year, his own fingerprints have been on over $40 million in research grants, and he serves as the program director of the world’s largest bioengineering network, BME planet. Skalak launched the UVA Venture Summit, an annual conference that attracts potential investors in charge of a combined $10 billion to Charlottesville, and his imprint stretches across the fields of science, technology, and medicine. Oh, yeah, and he’s 6’8", so you have to look up to him no matter what. With UVA’s fundraising capacity at the center of the debate around its leadership vacuum, Skalak becomes an irreplaceable figure on Grounds.
Martin Chapman (Photo by John Robinson)
2. Martin Chapman
Founder, Indoor Biotechnologies
Martin Chapman’s company, Indoor Biotechnologies, recently bought the historic Coca-Cola building on Preston Avenue for $2.5 million, and is currently in the process of turning it into a production center for the allergy test kits it sells around the world. Chapman arrived at UVA in 1985 by way of UCLA and the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London and became a leader in allergy and asthma research. In 1998, he set up Indoor Biotechnologies to explore ways to spin out his allergy antibody research into allergen testing technology and other marketable products. Around the same time, he said, he felt like he’d hit a glass ceiling at UVA as a Ph.D. in a clinical department. So he jumped ship and started a profitable company that serves public health marketplaces with growing demand. With clients like National Institutes of Health, Chapman’s business is stable but relatively modest. His power stems from his commitment to place and from the model he’s creating. He wants his lab facility to be a nexus where local biotech entrepreneurs can get their starts and build businesses that bring talent to town, instead of losing it to bigger markets.
3. Michael Prichard and Tobias Dengel
Founders, WillowTree Apps
In 2008, two business guys with technology backgrounds joined forces to start a software development company. WillowTree found its niche with the exploding market for mobile applications and has grown into one of the largest mobile application development companies in the U.S. Four years and 30 employees later, Willow Tree has developed over 100 apps for high-profile national brands, many with local ties like UVA, CFA Institute, and Johnson & Johnson. Prichard, a former technology executive at Rotech Healthcare, Inc. has experience consulting for IBM and Adobe. Dengel was a vice president at AOL and has a finance degree from Wharton to go along with his systems engineering degree from UPenn.
The company actively recruits employees from UVA, Richmond, Virginia Tech, and JMU to work on projects as varied as the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2012 Cheerleader Calendar and Manta’s Android applications.
4. Dr. Neal Kassell
Founder, Focused Ultrasound Foundation
A UVA neurosurgeon who drives sports cars and lives in a fancy house on Garth Road, Kassell is the epitome of the unapologetic marriage of public research and private money. The UPenn-educated doc moves fluidly between the medicine, nonprofit, and venture capital scenes, and has had his name on more private ventures than are worth naming, mostly related to his work with focused ultrasound technology.
Focused ultrasound, a cancer treatment, is “a new technology for non-invasive surgery, the precise delivery of drugs, and an alternative to radiation therapy” and has the potential to speed patient recovery from tumors. Kassell has turned the Focused Ultrasound Foundation into a nonprofit powerhouse with board members that include the likes of John Grisham, Michael Milken, and Dorothy Batten. He has served on the board for Eclypsis Corporation, INC Research, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and has accrued over $30 million in grants and contracts, won numerous neurological awards and published over 450 scientific papers. Any medical students out there wondering what the future of their business looks like would do well to follow in Kassell’s tire tracks.
Zack Buckner (Photo by John Robinson)
5. Zach Buckner
Founder, Relay Foods
It used to be that entrepreneurs made deals on the golf course, but there’s a whole new type of deal maker emerging, and Zach Buckner could be the poster child for the new nerd power. Browse his website to see the load of patents, businesses, and ideas he’s working on, and you’ll see that the UVA-educated electrical engineer has an expansive set of priorities. One of Buckner’s most visible projects is his decentralized, highly social, Internet-based grocery delivery biz Relay Foods, which in 2011 earned him the Rocket Award from the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council and got a shout out in Forbes magazine. Capitalizing on and investing in the region’s local food movement, the UVA engineer has made serious waves (and raised $3.1 million in early investment capital) in Charlottesville’s economy and positioned his business as a model for regional food distribution networks that care about farmers and quality.
IF I HAD THE POWER…
Spencer Ingram (Photo by John Robinson)
Founder, HackCville, age 27
“What would I do with unlimited resources? Well in a real way, this is not hypothetical.
Charlottesville has a wealth of talent in experienced entrepreneurs, designers and professionals with a special willingness to help. Our collaborative spirit is at the core of HackCville. Contributors possess varying skills and experiences but everyone has something to share.
This mindset is at play to help build a start-up hub where hackers, makers, and shaker-uppers collide. I’m saying let’s bang some pans together and see how many squirrels we can wake up. I want to fill Downtown space with the offices of creative new businesses. This is what fires me up.
Let’s just build it, jump in the driver’s seat and slam the pedal. Sometimes we go skidding off the road kicking up dust, but we’re doing it.”