Tom Tom 2.0: Why UVA is investing in Charlottesville’s take on SXSW

UVA is underwriting the second annual Tom Tom Founders Festival. Image courtesy of UVA is underwriting the second annual Tom Tom Founders Festival. Image courtesy of

Short, sweet, and smart. That’s what Paul Beyer wants the second annual Tom Tom Founders Festival to be, and the erstwhile City Council candidate has a powerful partner backing his vision.

The University of Virginia is providing brainpower, funding, and even an appearance by its own president to help fuel this year’s pared-down version of the April 11-14 event. A town-plus-gown approach to the city-wide celebration of local creativity held on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday has seen the focus change from a sprawling music fest to a more highly focused celebration of innovation in Charlottesville.

Beyer created Tom Tom last year as a month-long local answer to Austin’s SXSW festival. Music will still be a big part of version two, “but the rock stars this year are the innovators in Charlottesville,” Beyer said. “We’re a music-saturated town, and there’s not a commensurate level of attention paid to people who really are pushing the ball forward in medical technology and innovation of all sorts.”

Anybody and everybody benefits when smart people get a chance to talk about what they do, he said, and in Charlottesville, that means some very cool conversations. “You go to the grocery store in this town and you see people you may not know are here, but who are literally leaders in the world in what they do,” he said.

At the core of the focus on local thinkers are two days of brief lectures by leading lights styled after TED talks. Headlining the 10- to 15-minute “Tom Talks” series is UVA President Teresa Sullivan, who will speak about trends in leadership styles (the significance of the timing and subject matter, coming nearly a year after her attempted ouster by UVA’s Board of Visitors, will be lost on few). Most of the two dozen other speakers also have ties to the University, from Engineering School alum Paul Perrone, whose Perrone Robotics is at the leading edge of driverless car technology, to Toan Nguyen, a Darden grad and serial entrepreneur whose latest venture is a for-profit business network designed to steer contracts to local women- and minority-owned businesses.

But TTFF2 is about much more than intellectual entertainment. Locals working in fast-growing fields where innovation is key say getting great minds from academia and the private sector together is vital for the area’s economic health.

Rick Hamilton is one of them. You wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, if you called Hamilton a computer scientist. But in the 20 years since he was hired by IBM in Austin right out of his graduate program at the University of Texas, he’s established himself as a master inventor, holding claim to more than 600 discoveries. IBM was the world leader in patents filed in 2012, and Hamilton, who moved to Charlottesville in 2000, filed more than anyone. His primary job these days, though, is as an innovation consultant, a job that takes him around the world on behalf of IBM, teaching individuals, companies, and governments how to foster good ideas.

“No matter how good an idea I might have, if I share it, if we collaborate, it can become better and bigger,” said Hamilton, who is signed up for a Tom Talk on the culture of innovation. “This kind of mix, this kind of exposure to different ideas is really fundamental.”

He’s used to watching the churn of innovation on a global scale—“I know more about what’s happening in Yunnan Province or in Zhengzhou than what’s happening right down the street,” he said—but the same concept can apply within the city limits of Charlottesville, a place he chose to settle because of its beauty and its brilliant minds: Put the idea people together, and then stir.

“There’s massive opportunity for economic development to happen here based on this unusual mix of creative types that we have,” he said. “Next is this question of how we reach critical mass. How do we provide the services and the infrastructure for the entrepreneurs, for the people who are going to create the next big thing?”

UVA is part of the answer. In the last three years, the University has completely overhauled the way it approaches innovation, restructuring its patent foundation to encourage more researchers to license discoveries, and hiring academic tech transfer expert Mark Crowell to lead it. The goal was to make UVA not just an idea factory, but a greenhouse that could help the best ideas grow. There was a lot of early focus on biotechnology—the payoff can be huge for the development of drugs and medical technology—but the concept is spreading, as evidenced by the success of the Darden School’s i.Lab, a garage-like classroom where students learn design-thinking skills, that is expanding to become a business incubator for local entrepreneurs.

To Beyer, all that looked like good groundwork for a partnership. He said Crowell and UVA Vice President for Research Tom Skalak thought so, too. Their arm of the University—UVA Innovation—joined the Darden School and the Batten Institute in donating money to underwrite the festival. The McIntire School of Commerce is funding a $250,000 pitch night, and more support came from the Virginia Film Festival and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, said Beyer.

“They believe Charlottesville needs to be branded as a hotspot for innovation, and needs to become a place where people want to start businesses and stay,” he said.

That pleases Dr. Neal Kassell, a UVA neurosurgeon, founder of the Charlottesville-based Focused Ultrasound Foundation, and scheduled Tom Talker. Kassell works closely with UVA researchers, but he moved the development of the technology he believes in—a device that allows for precise, non-invasive surgical procedures by focusing sound waves—outside the walls of academia because he thought going after private investment in the technology would make it more useful more quickly. The more entrepreneurs with a foot in both camps in Charlottesville, the better, he said. It’s worked elsewhere, he pointed out.

“What makes Silicon Valley magic is that there’s financial capital, and there’s intellectual capital, and then you have Stanford University as a catalyst to bring that together,” Kassell said. The same model worked in Austin. Jefferson’s city may be a little smaller, “but we have no shortage of financial capital in this community, no shortage of intellectual capital, and we have the University,” he said. “The future looks very bright.”

Here’s what to look for during this year’s Tom Tom Founders Festival, which runs Thursday, April 11 through Sunday, April 14—good old TJ’s birthday weekend (hence the name):

  • Free shows from area performers, including an opening gala headlined by local favorite David Wax Museum.
  • Pitch competitions where the crowd will pick an artist or entrepreneur to win $10,000 and $250,000 grants.
  • Tom Talks at The Haven featuring Teresa Sullivan and two dozen other local leaders speaking on everything from robots to religion.
  • Field to Fork Expo, a ramped-up version of Charlottesville’s Saturday City Market.
  • Plus block parties, art events, and more—visit for the full schedule.

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