Talking tech: Fostering the next generation of startups

Student entrepreneurs at work at Hack Cville. Photo by Graelyn Brashear. Student entrepreneurs at work at Hack Cville. Photo by Graelyn Brashear.

Editor’s note: In this week’s issue of C-VILLE Weekly, I took a look at Charlottesville’s growing tech industry with a story that explored why so many Web- and technology-oriented companies are putting down roots here. I had some great talks with a number of people who are driving the expansion of the local tech scene, and this week, I’m extending the conversation here on our website and touching on some things that didn’t make it into print. 

Spencer Ingram readily admits he’s facing high hurdles in his latest venture.

“There’s a ton of startup incubators out there, and the track record is terrible,” he said.

But he opened Hack Cville this spring anyway, because he thinks he has the right model in the right town.

Ingram, a young UVA alum with an engineering background and serious entrepreneurial drive—he created the community-oriented bike shop Bike Lab in a space he carved out of the soon-to-be-razed Random Row shops on Main Street—wanted to give talented students a space where they could take a stab at turning their ideas for websites and mobile apps into real business ventures. The idea was to offer a place where they could network, get guidance from mentors, and have a soft landing for inevitable failures.

His storefront on Elliewood Avenue is becoming a center of gravity for the student entrepreneurs that make the cut, and for the experienced local tech gurus who pay a fee and pledge at least four hours a week for the chance to work and collaborate in the space.

And while the students are there to work hard toward ambitious goals for their would-be innovations, Hack Cville is about more than finding the next big app.

“Our candidates are selected as people, not ideas, and those people set the mindset of helping one another succeed,” Ingram said. “Tech understands and entrepreneurs understand that there needs to be sharing in order to innovate.”

It’s a concept that came up a lot in our look at the growing tech industry in this town: The places where lots of companies succeed are the ones where people in the industry put a lot of emphasis on building a community around what they do.

And that’s essentially Ingram’s full-time job now, and he thinks rallying more experienced people around those who are just starting out is a powerful way to galvanize the local industry. “We’re getting the kids who can’t imagine doing anything else—we find them, and we give them a seat,” he said. “This is the way to build startups that stay here. If this is how you got started, you want to stay and help make things happen, and help the next crop make things happen.”

Hack has been up and running through the summer, but things kicked into higher gear with the start of the fall semester. At any given time, there are eight to 10 teams of at least two students on intensive, six-week tracks toward specific development goals.

For fourth-year Rory Stolzenberg, it’s been a great resource. The economics and government major recently launched Foodio, an app that lets a big group of people split up payment for a takeout order using their smartphones. It’s a solution to a quintessential collegiate problem: be the good guy step up a frat party to pay for the pizzas, and you inevitably get screwed.

The app is currently available for Android phones, and Stolzenberg and his co-developer are soon rolling out an iPhone version. Right now, it’s a totally local venture—they’ve been cultivating relationships with several restaurants near Grounds—but they think their idea has big potential.

Hack Cville has opened up a lot of possibilities, said Stolzenberg. “It creates a lot of energy, and it makes the whole process way way more effective,” he said—far better than the first days of Foodio, when he and his partner would spend hours holed up in a room writing code. “As entrepreneurs, I can’t believe we ever just sat around not talking to anyone.”

And whatever happens with his first venture, it’s clear Stolzenberg has the bug. “I can’t imagine just getting a job now,” he said. “This is definitely the way to go—solving real problems in the world and being able to see how people use this thing you created, and are better for it.”

That’s what Ingram likes to hear. The more passionate people working on ideas, the more likely it is an idea will stick, a company will grow, and the local scene will get stronger. “We’re pulling back the curtain on the fact that you can get it done here,” he said.

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