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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.”

VWCC Educational Foundation launches innovative Fralin Futures scholarship program

In a recent survey of incoming Virginia Western Community College students, 92 percent reported they planned to work while pursuing their degree. Nearly a third expected to log at least 20 hours a week, on top of tackling a full-time or near full-time class load.

Those financial realities prompted the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation to create an innovative scholarship program that aims to couple full tuition support with living-expense stipends, career-focused cohort activities, mentorships and additional degree-completion incentives. The intent is to remove common obstacles facing community college students and to help them cross the “finish line” to graduation.

Students may apply for the Fralin Futures STEM-H Scholarship through May 1, 2019. To be eligible, they must be within two semesters of graduating from Virginia Western as of fall 2019, enrolled in a STEM-H program of study and maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA. The College expects to enroll 10 recipients, called Fralin Futures Scholars, as a pilot program in fall 2019 – not long after a new $30 million STEM building opens on campus.

The Fralin Futures STEM-H Scholarship program is made possible by a $5 million gift from the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust. The donation, initiated in 2013, remains the largest-ever single gift to the College, and the largest donation dedicated solely to scholarships in the history of the Virginia Community College System. It established an endowment that will benefit generations of Roanoke region students who seek careers in the region’s growing health care and life-sciences sectors.

“It is truly exciting that Virginia Western has been able to provide a quality education to its outstanding students,” said W. Heywood Fralin, a member of the Educational Foundation’s Board of Directors and Chairman of Medical Facilities of America.  “It is because of this quality that the Fralin Charitable Trust committed to fund these finish-line scholarships, which that will provide residents of this region the opportunity to further their education and position themselves to lead the next generation to great success.”

The Educational Foundation’s flagship effort is the Community College Access Program (CCAP), which draws on public and private support to fund up to three years of college for recent high school graduates. Founded in 2008, CCAP has provided tuition support for nearly 2,500 Roanoke region students.

CCAP historically focused on the “A” – for access – in spreading the message that college is possible for everyone in the Roanoke region. The Fralin Futures STEM-H program complements CCAP by focusing on a student completing his or her educational journey. Unlike CCAP, which serves recent high school graduates, Fralin STEM-H scholarships are open to students of all ages.

“We believe this scholarship will make a real difference for students who have done well at Virginia Western but might be forced to delay graduating because, quite simply, life gets in the way,” said Amanda Mansfield, the Educational Foundation’s Philanthropy Director. “Our older students, in particular, sometimes must juggle taking care of their family and going to school. One financial bump in the road can seriously derail an otherwise excellent student.”

The recipient may use the living-expense stipend – which is equal to the tuition award each semester – however he or she wishes.  “Medical bills, day care expenses, an emergency car repair – these are all things that can throw students off track,” Mansfield said.

Recipients also may apply the stipend to their future tuition, giving them a financial head start if they plan to transfer to a four-year school.

Fralin Futures Scholars will benefit from organized cohort activities that expose them to mentors and employers in the region’s STEM-H fields. The College has established a partnership with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC that will provide these students a close-up view of the facility’s growth and potential career pathways. 

“Virginia Western has been so fortunate to benefit from the vision and commitment of the Fralin family,” said Dr. Robert H. Sandel, Virginia Western’s President. “They understand that a key to building a stronger economy is educating our workforce. And they wanted to make a lasting impact that will touch everyone in the region.”

To apply and learn more, go to virginiawestern.edu/FralinScholarships. Or contact Carolyn Payne, Scholarship Coordinator at the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation, at cpayne@virginiawestern.edu or (540) 857-6371. The deadline to apply is May 1, 2019.

Fast Facts about STEM-H at Virginia Western

  • 47 percent of program-placed Virginia Western students are enrolled in either “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or “H” (health professions) programs of study.

The top STEM-H programs, by enrollment:

  • Science (Associate of Science)
  • Nursing (Associate of Applied Science)
  • Engineering (Associate of Science)
  • Mechatronics (Associate of Applied Science)
  • Information Systems Technology: Network and Security Analyst (Associate of Applied Science)
  • Dental Hygiene (Associate of Applied Science)
  • 61 percent of all program-placed students at Virginia Western receive some type of financial aid.
  • 47 percent of all program-placed students are age 22 or older.

Source: Virginia Western Community College Office of Institutional Effectiveness, based on 2017-18 enrollment