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May 11, 2012

Leaders say unique qualities of Charlottesville-Albemarle make it a special place for start-up companies

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Friday, May 11, 2012

As one of almost 60 bands in the Tom Tom Founders Festival was setting up its equipment on the stage at The Haven, Oliver Platts-Mills was busy getting the ironing board in place for the pre-concert activities.

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Oliver Platts-Mills poses a question to Albemarle Supervisor Ann H. Mallek

The improvised green ironing board table and stuffed animal buffalo mascot have become fixtures of the festival’s panel discussions on innovation.

“The idea behind this series is to look at the ongoing innovation in Charlottesville and the future of innovation in Charlottesville,” said Platts-Mills, a Tom Tom co-founder. “When we talk about ‘place-based innovation,’ we are specifically talking about how Charlottesville as a place affects the type of innovation that’s happening.”

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The month-long series of panel discussions wrapped up Friday evening with an inside look at local startup Relay Foods and a keynote presentation by the chairwoman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, representatives from the University of Virginia and Virginia’s secretary of commerce.

“I would generally describe the efforts of Albemarle County as [being in] the quality of life business,” said Albemarle board Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek. “We know that we need economic vitality and opportunity all across the board for citizens of all skill levels, and we need to find ways to preserve and conserve our rural areas.”

UVa’s vice president for research, Tom Skalak, described how the university is trying very hard to increase knowledge sharing and dissemination with the local community.

“We are doing a number of things to make the university much more outward-facing,” Skalak said.

“There’s been a real effort in recent years to improve the whole ecosystem,” added Philippe L. Sommer, director of entrepreneurship programs at UVa’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. “It’s not just about what is going on at UVa, or Darden, it’s about what’s going on in the whole community and trying to make that interface much more dynamic.”

Jim Cheng, Virginia’s secretary of commerce, provided some statewide perspective and emphasized the need to reach future innovators early in life.
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(L to R) Zach Buckner, Brendan Richardson, Stein Kretsinger, and John Elder

“We have a whole generation of young folks who think the answer to their future is to win ‘American Idol’ or get in the NBA,” Cheng said. “We have to gear the young folks toward practical, useful careers, and some of it will be in entrepreneurship.”

Zach Buckner, 33, clearly got on the right track early. After getting his master’s in electrical engineering from UVa and working with professor John Elder to build a data mining consulting company, Buckner began in 2007 what would become Charlottesville startup Relay Foods.

Relay Foods is an online grocery store that brings local goods to a centralized pickup location. Now its trucks are a fixture around the community, but improving access to local food and groceries wasn’t the initial plan.

“The first thought was that this would work for anything that we buy in our city,” Buckner said. “We started iterating and trying the business … and food is just way better as a place to get started. It’s much higher value density, so an $8 piece of cheese is really small and it has really high repeat purchase rates.”

One of the Tom Tom festival’s goals is to stimulate the sharing of ideas, expertise and capital, particularly in the areas around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. That’s where former venture capitalist Brendan Richardson met Buckner.

Richardson said he was initially “a big skeptic” of the Relay Foods pitch, but that Buckner appeared to be a “sweet kid.”

“The popular view of [venture capitalists] is that they are really smart people that pick our great ideas that turn into Facebook and Google,” Richardson said. “The truth of the matter is the VCs are actually pretty bad at that. The most disruptive ideas look at the early stages like they will never work.

“Zach, to his great credit, is the classic entrepreneur that said, there is a way to do this and we’re going to study that way, and then we are going to run some small experiments and figure out how to get it right,” Richardson said.

Buckner said Relay Foods was now raising funds to expand from Charlottesville and Richmond into the Washington, D.C., region and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.

In the audience, Sarah Parisi, of Wheaton, Ill., said she was an “established photographer and aspiring farmer” who first came to Charlottesville to participate in the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph five years ago.

She came Friday seeking advice on her next business venture as she contemplates a move from Chicago to Charlottesville. She said this weekend’s visit has her feeling confirmed about the change.

“It is a place that attracts visitors … and it sounds so classic, but it’s beautiful here,” Parisi said. “You can tell it’s a great place to live.”

City Councilor Dave Norris also attended the event.

“I think there is a wealth of potential for increasing the kinds of connections and opportunities we’ve been hearing about to promote a stronger ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation in our region,” Norris said. “[This discussion] has been bubbling up for a number of years now, but what I think you are starting to see is that it’s really about to boil over, and that’s a good thing.”

Review the entire Tom Tom innovation series at http://www.cvilletomorrow.org/TomTom .

20120511-TomTom2(L to R) Oliver Platts-Mills, Ann Mallek, Philippe Sommer, Tom Skalak, and Jim Cheng

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