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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.

RAMP business accelerator awarded $40,000 state grant

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe today announced the awarding of a $40,000 state grant to support the development of entrepreneurial classes at RAMP, a new technology business accelerator planned for downtown Roanoke in spring 2017.

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 to develop RAMP’s first programming to assist startups in growing their companies.

“Small business development is a vital component of the new Virginia economy,” Gov. McAuliffe said. “The Building Entrepreneurial Economies grant awards will support our homegrown assets and create new opportunities for economic diversification. By supporting small business programs in communities across the Commonwealth, we are building a strong entrepreneurial environment that will ensure that Virginia continues to be the best place for individuals to start and grow their companies.”

RAMP, which stands for Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program, will be housed in the historic Gill Memorial Hospital building at 709 S. Jefferson St., along the recently announced downtown Roanoke Innovation Corridor.

Other RAMP founding partners include:

  • the City of Roanoke, which won an earlier $600,000 state grant to renovate the Gill building as an accelerator;
  • and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council (RBTC), which will hire RAMP’s executive director and develop the accelerator’s mentorship and networking initiatives.

Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill welcomed the announcement of the state grant, which will be issued by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). The department previously provided the $600,000 grant to renovate the Gill Memorial Building as a business accelerator.

 

“This grant serves as another reminder of the Governor and DHCD’s ongoing support for job creation within the Roanoke-Blacksburg Region,” Morrill said. “The City is pleased to be a part of the RAMP public-private partnership, managed by a key Roanoke/New River valley asset: Virginia Western Community College.”

Last week, the RBTC announced a national search to fill the top leadership position of RAMP. The director’s position is posted on the organization’s website (https://jobs.rbtc.tech/Jobs/JobDetails?JobID=g9SzVSrB790%3d) and on LinkedIn.

“We are accepting applications through Nov. 28 and hope to make a hire before the end of the year,” said Robert McAden, RBTC’s board chairman and the Blacksburg site director for Rackspace. “We are also actively seeking funds through multiple efforts, including a crowdfunding campaign (www.RAMPtilt.com).”

RAMP’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 per year. Companies accepted into RAMP will work closely with multiple mentors during an intensive three-month “boot camp for founders” designed to focus on building, testing, improving, validating product-market fit, and launching their product for the market.

The BEE grant will fund the development and instruction of entrepreneurial coursework for the RAMP startups companies in spring 2017. Virginia Western’s Workforce Solutions division will provide the training and provide other business classes open to the public in the building’s second-floor classroom.

To learn more about RAMP, go to: www.RAMPrb.tech. To donate to the RAMP crowdfunding campaign, go to www.RampTilt.com.

RAMP business accelerator to foster growth of region’s high-potential startups

Propelling high-potential startups to expand and create jobs is the goal of RAMP, a new technology business accelerator program set to launch in early 2017 in downtown Roanoke.

Entrepreneurs who seek to scale up their companies will apply to participate in RAMP, which stands for Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program. The program will be housed in the historic Gill Memorial Hospital building at 709 S. Jefferson St., along the recently announced downtown Health Sciences and Technology Innovation District.

Support for RAMP comes from a broad public/private partnership that draws on leaders in higher education, government, and the region’s growing technology community. RAMP founding partners include:

  • the City of Roanoke, which won a $600,000 state grant approved by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to renovate the Gill building as an accelerator;
  • Virginia Western Community College, which will provide business education classes and faculty support;
  • the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, whose members lead the RAMP Advisory Board and will develop the accelerator’s mentorship and networking initiatives;

“The breadth of this partnership demonstrates that many people recognize the need for a business accelerator in the Roanoke-Blacksburg region,” said Dr. Robert H. Sandel, President of Virginia Western Community College and a Roanoke-Blacksburg Innovation Network (RBIN) director. “We believe we can grow and keep our talent, whether it’s in information technology, advanced manufacturing, biosciences or other entrepreneurial efforts.”

While the region has seen business incubators and similar efforts to foster startups, RAMP stands apart because it is “an intentional and highly focused program,” said Jonathan Whitt, President and CEO of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council (RBTC). “Too many times, we have seen startups leave our region because they lacked what the accelerator program will offer – structured mentorships between entrepreneurs and experienced individuals in their field, access to funding that will get them beyond early stage, and business education specifically targeted to launching technology-based start-ups.”

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 per year, Whitt said. Companies accepted into RAMP will work closely with multiple mentors during an intensive three- to four-month “boot camp for founders” designed to focus on building, testing, improving, validating product-market fit, and launching their product for the market.

According to Greg Feldmann, Chairman of the RAMP Advisory Board, having access to mentors who have built and managed successful businesses is a key differentiator of an accelerator program versus an incubator.

“They understand the unique challenges of launching a company,” Feldmann said. “This entails the complexities of identifying a large market opportunity where high-value customer needs can be uniquely met through your product development, determining the best go-to-market strategy, attracting the right talent, managing supply chains, and developing key partnerships. Experience is always the best teacher, and RAMP’s mentors will provide invaluable insights based on their experiences.”

RAMP will operate from the top floor of the three-story Gill building, which was constructed as an ear, nose and throat clinic by civic leader Dr. Elbyrne Gill in 1930. Virginia Western Community College will offer business education courses open to the public on the second floor. The first floor will be available for lease to an anchor tenant. RBTC will maintain its Roanoke office in the building.

The Gill building’s most recent owner, Carilion Clinic, sold it to the city in 2015. Design and construction will be completed by Balzer and Associates Inc. and Lionberger Construction Co.

Marc Nelson, special projects coordinator for Roanoke’s Department of Economic Development and a RAMP Advisory Board member, said the renovation project has a target completion date of December 2016. Support for the effort also comes from the city’s Economic Development Authority (EDA), which has pledged $100,000 over four years.

“RAMP represents the next logical step in the enhancement of the Roanoke-Blacksburg entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Nelson said. “The City and the EDA recognize the benefits of assisting the region’s established educators and entrepreneurs in their efforts to help emerging companies realize their goals and further grow that ecosystem.”

RAMP expects to play a different but complementary role in that entrepreneurial ecosystem. For example, the CoLab, with more than 140 members, functions as an inclusive co-working space in Roanoke appropriate for entry-level entrepreneurs. RAMP, by contrast, will select companies through a competitive application process open to the region’s technology entrepreneurs, serving up to five high-growth enterprises that have demonstrated they have developed a minimum viable product to serve a large market opportunity.

Samantha Steidle, a CoLab creator and Innovation Officer at Virginia Western, will work closely with the RAMP advisory board to develop and sustain the business model, which will include entrepreneurial and other workforce programming on behalf of the College.

“I see us as natural partners,” said Ariel Lev, executive director of the CoLab. “We look forward to some of our startups maturing to the point that they need the next level of focused mentorship and networking that RAMP will provide.”

More information on the accelerator applicant process and programming will be released in Fall 2016. Those interested in learning more can go to www.RAMPrb.tech.

RAMP Advisory Board

Greg Feldmann (Chairman) – Skyline Capital Strategies, LLC

Kevin Bloomfield – Bloomfield Partners; Roanoke-Blacksburg Innovation Network, Co-Chairman

Wayne Bowers – Roanoke Department of Economic Development

Sam English – Attention Point

Ken Ferris – Brookewood Management Advisors; Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, Advisory Board

Jay Foster – SoftSolutions

Hal Irvin – Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Robert McAden – Rackspace; Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, Board Chairman

Marc Nelson – Roanoke Department of Economic Development

Bart Smith – Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center

Samantha Steidle – Virginia Western Community College

Carole Tarrant – Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation

Jonathan Whitt – Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, President and CEO