Type your search keyword, and press enter

Local tech company with VWCC connections partners with NASA

When scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) capture future pictures of Earth’s atmosphere, they might end up using technology containing components manufactured by former Virginia Western Community College faculty and students. 

Based in Fincastle, Va., Micro Harmonics Corporation (MHC) is a technology company that specializes in the creation of millimeter-wave components. The parts created by the company allow users to access higher frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum, and can be used for a number of scientific and commercial purposes. For example, automated cars, 5g wireless broadband access and airport security scanners all utilize millimeter-wave technology. The components are also used by NASA for a number of applications, including in the instruments that capture images of the Earth’s ozone layer.

“We’ve been working under NASA funding through various contracts for the past four years,” MHC chief executive officer David Porterfield said. “NASA’s been a big pusher of all these technologies.”

Founded in 2008, MHC is headed by Porterfield and his sister, former Virginia Western professor Diane Kees. She taught engineering and mechatronics classes before joining the company full time in 2017. Since acquiring a NASA small business innovation research grant worth $750,000, Porterfield and Kees have worked diligently to develop millimeter-wave components that can be used by commercial enterprises and government agencies alike.

The company recently won an additional two-year contract worth $750,000 from NASA to further develop some of its products; that money will be used, in part, to develop components that can function at cryogenic temperatures. So far, MHC has hired three graduates of Virginia Western’s Mechatronics Systems Engineering Technology program to work in its Fincastle laboratory.

“We actually offer tuition reimbursement to employees,” Kees said. “We try to keep our students in school so they’ll complete the mechatronics program.”

Kees, who continued working at Virginia Western for two years after joining MHC, said that the company has had an easy time recruiting talented students. The demand for millimeter-wave technology is expected to grow by 40 percent each year over the next seven years, and its applications will only expand with time.

“When I was teaching at (Virginia) Western and … I mentioned that we first got the contract through NASA JPL, all my students’ jaws dropped,” Kees said. “That was so exciting for them, that we got a contract with the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA.”

The company is also looking for opportunities to improve their marketing and sales strategies. In May 2019, MHC was one of six companies to be accepted to the Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP), a Southwest Virginia business accelerator that helps science, technology, engineering, math and health (STEM-H) companies test the viability and marketability of their products. That yearlong program has provided MHC with access to a number of business experts in the area, as well as with $20,000 in seed capital. 

“The RAMP program is helping us in that transition to become a viable commercial business,” Kees said. “In the meantime, we’re still working with NASA. They like what we’ve given them, and they’re giving us more contracts.”

Porterfield said that as the company continues to expand its product offerings, it will seek out more talented employees, particularly through the mechatronics program at Virginia Western.

“We’re small now. We’re only five full-time employees and a part-time consultant who lives in the area,” Porterfield said. “But I could see us growing pretty rapidly.”

RAMP business accelerator awarded 2nd $40,000 state grant

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe today announced the awarding of a second $40,000 state grant to support the development of entrepreneurial classes at the RAMP business accelerator in downtown Roanoke.

The goal of the state’s Building Entrepreneurial Economies (BEE) grant program is to encourage micro/small business development and job creation. Virginia Western Community College, one of the public/private partners behind the accelerator initiative, will use the funds in part to develop educational programming to benefit independent contractors, freelancers and other entrepreneurs with part-time work arrangements – those who are classified as members of the “gig economy.”

“The grants announced today support local entrepreneurship programs that are critical to our efforts to build the new Virginia economy,” Gov. McAuliffe said in a news release. “By supporting small business programs across the Commonwealth, we can bring new life and revitalization to local communities helping spur future public and private sector economic development investment.”

Samantha Steidle, Virginia Western’s RAMP Innovation Officer, said the new BEE grant will help RAMP broaden its reach to a growing constituency of entrepreneurs.

“Nearly all of the net employment growth over the past decade came from alternative work arrangements – gigs – not full-time jobs,” Steidle said. “The ‘gig economy’ impacts nearly all career paths –  from arts, design, communication, media and IT to construction, transportation, healthcare and many services. It will be a major driver of economic development and job creation, which is directly aligned with the mission of the community college system.”

RAMP, which stands for Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program, operates from the historic Gill Memorial Hospital building at 709 S. Jefferson St., along the Roanoke Innovation Corridor.

Other RAMP founding partners include:

  • the City of Roanoke, which won a $600,000 state grant to renovate the Gill building as an accelerator;
  • and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council (RBTC), which hired Mary Miller as RAMP’s executive director and has developed the accelerator’s mentorship and networking initiatives.

A previous state BEE grant supported educational programming for RAMP’s inaugural cohort of six companies, which moved into the Gill building in June. The six were chosen for their ability to expand and create jobs within the STEM-H field. On Sept. 11, the cohort will present their business plans at “Demo Day” at Virginia Western’s Whitman Theater.

The new BEE grant will fund the development and instruction of entrepreneurial coursework for the second RAMP cohort as well as the general public in spring and summer 2018. Virginia Western’s Workforce Solutions division provides that training and other business classes open to the public in the building’s second-floor classroom.

To learn more about RAMP, go to: www.RAMPrb.tech.

Woods Rogers law firm pledges $50,000 to support new RAMP business accelerator

The Virginia law firm of Wood Rogers PLC will donate $50,000 to the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation in support of the new RAMP technology business accelerator opening in downtown Roanoke. Under a five year agreement, Woods Rogers will contribute $10,000 per year to RAMP beginning in 2017 and concluding in 2021.

The Educational Foundation is a nonprofit organization associated with Virginia Western Community College, which will provide business education programming at RAMP, located in the old Gill Memorial Hospital building at 709 S. Jefferson Street in downtown Roanoke.

“The Educational Foundation is proud to support the RAMP initiative and its mission to create jobs in Roanoke,” said Dr. Angela M. Garcia Falconetti, Executive Director of the Educational Foundation and Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Virginia Western Community College. “RAMP provides an example of the direct role that institutions of higher education can play in economic development.”

RAMP’s mission is to propel high-potential startups to expand and create jobs in the STEM-H (Science,

Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Health) fields. Other partners in the initiative include the City of Roanoke, which won a state grant to complete renovations on the historical Gill Memorial site; and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, which will recruit RAMP participants and provide them mentorship and networking opportunities.

“It is an honor to be part of RAMP from Day One,” said Dan Summerlin, President of Woods Rogers. “We firmly believe that entrepreneurs and start-up companies are a vital part of the economic future of Roanoke and of Virginia as well. Woods Rogers and its Emerging Growth practice group are committed to helping this initiative succeed. We look forward to being an active contributor of counsel and ideas to RAMP’s participants.”

RAMP, which stands for Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program, is accepting applicants for its first participant teams through March 15.  Learn more at www.ramprb.tech. The program is expected to start in June 2017.

RAMP participants will benefit from a mentoring program, networking opportunities, business education and access to capital. The inaugural program includes an intensive “boot camp” that culminates in a   $5,000 prize for the accelerator company offering the best jobs-creation strategy.

The program’s model, based on best practices garnered from existing successful business accelerators, will initially focus on accelerating three to five technology- or life science-focused companies in the first cohort. Companies accepted into RAMP will work closely with multiple mentors to focus on building, testing, improving, validating product-market fit, and launching their product for the market.

To be considered for RAMP, applicants must:

  • Agree to locate their company, rent-free, inside the accelerator for a six-month residency;
  • Have a minimum viable product, preferably with sales traction;
  • Work full time on their startup during the program;
  • Have a product or service employing workers in the STEM-H field, with scalability potential;
  • Be willing to consider operating their company in the Roanoke-Blacksburg region after graduation.