Blacksburg can be deceptive. On the surface, this small college town seems like so many other small towns: slow pace, peaceful neighborhoods, reasonable cost of living, and beautiful scenery. But against its rural backdrop, Blacksburg is teeming with prospects.
"This is not the Blacksburg of 10 years ago," says Joe Meredith (aerospace engineering '69; Ph.D. industrial and systems engineering '97), president of Tech's Corporate Research Center (CRC), a 120-acre complex of 17 buildings nestled in the rolling hills by the campus airport. "We have terrific opportunities that probably were not here when most alumni were students."
Established in 1985 as a subsidiary of the Virginia Tech Foundation and recognized in 1997 by the National Council for Urban Economic Development as the "Best Practice in Technology Transfer and Research Centers" in the eight-state mid-Atlantic region, the CRC grew from 15 companies to 108 in just a decade. The center's newest affiliate, the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, will create a multitude of research relationships with both Tech and other CRC companies, and plans are in place for additional expansion of the complex: total construction is projected at 28 buildings to house an estimated 3,000 employees.
At present, the companies of the CRC--25 percent of which are directed by Tech alumni--employ more than 1,700, approximately 50 percent of whom are alumni. A range of companies, from the Honeywell Corp. to alumni-run businesses such as Luna Technologies Inc. [see "With eyes wide open: The sense and sensibility of Kent Murphy," page 20, Spring 2002] and New City Media [see "Audience appeal," page 30, Summer 2003], undertakes technologically diverse, cutting-edge research and services. "There is no single concentration," says Meredith. "There are opportunities in electronics, sensors, software, transgenics, nanomaterials, biometrics, biomaterials--and some savvy alum may see other opportunities."
Michael Martin, executive vice president of Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. (VTIP), created in 1985 to handle, protect, and license technologies developed by Tech faculty, staff, and students, admits, "We are continually trying to find entrepreneurial risk takers to start new businesses, but that pool is limited in Blacksburg."
Certainly, Tech's drive to be among the country's top 30 research universities has prompted faculty members to disclose more intellectual properties for development, Martin reports, adding that "the university has made an additional investment by creating VT KnowledgeWorks," a program that facilitates the start-up of new companies at the CRC based on intellectual property developed by Tech. VT KnowledgeWorks "not only identifies inventions with high potential and marshals venture capital for start-up companies, but also provides business skills," Martin says. The incubator-like program leverages experts who focus on business-plan development, acquisition of capital, and training of the new company's staff. In short, VT KnowledgeWorks is expected to be the force behind a new generation of companies--and products and services--at the CRC.
Unfortunately, Martin notes, Tech faculty members typically have no interest in running businesses. "To them, a business is another way to disseminate research results." Besides, says Meredith, "The average faculty member works 55 hours per week and doesn't have time to run a business."
To that end, the leaders of the CRC, VTIP, and VT KnowledgeWorks are on a mission. "We are looking for people with fire in their bellies--the desire to take the risk of business ownership. We need people to start and run businesses," Martin says. Or, Meredith adds, "to take an early-stage company at the CRC to the next level."
Jai Saboo (industrial and systems engineering '89), general partner at Milestone Equity Partners, which is a member of the VT KnowledgeWorks alliance with the CRC and the Virginia Tech Foundation, reports, "We are looking for a special brand of people. These are people who understand the risks and rewards associated with entrepreneurship. These are people who have been there, done that' and have what it takes to work with an idea, technology, or invention and translate it into a product or service and create the market for it. These are leaders who have the knack of building and maintaining a high-energy start-up staff and who have the passion and drive to find and close the first sales deal."
Put simply, Virginia Tech is calling out to its alumni to return to Blacksburg. Without a doubt, those with the "entrepreneurial spirit will find opportunities at the CRC," says Meredith.
A partner at the CRC
One such alumnus who found just what he needed at the CRC is Bob Summers (computer engineering '98).
With a vision of making Internet video communication commonplace around the world, Summers began developing Internet communication software when he was a student. After Microsoft Press published his first book, Official Microsoft NetMeeting Book, in 1998, he used the money to finish his degree, at the same time starting his own company, nanoCom, from his Blacksburg apartment.
Though offered jobs at several large software companies, Summers chose to give his business a chance. Scouting a suitable location, he narrowed his choices to the Dulles Corridor, North Carolina's Research Triangle Park, and the CRC, realizing, he admits, that "the precious resource I needed to grow the business was people." Ultimately, his decision to situate nanoCom Corp. at the CRC wasn't a difficult one. "Locating my business at the CRC gave me easy access to the talent I needed from Virginia Tech," he says.
The company, which develops and markets desktop video conferencing software for the Internet, now provides services to customers in 172 countries and all 50 states, which translates to 1.5 million users worldwide. As founder and president, Summers oversees 16 employees, 13 of whom are Tech alumni. And he clearly knows his business, having recently been named to the "Top 20 under 40" by Blue Ridge Business Journal and as the "Young Entrepreneur of the Year" by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.
The CRC "is a fun place to work," says Summers, who cherishes the view from his office window. "I didn't want to live in a high-stress, high-traffic environment. Easy access to outdoor activities made Blacksburg a good fit for my lifestyle and the culture I desired to create at nanoCom." But the biggest draw of the CRC, Summers claims, is its president, Joe Meredith: "I don't feel I have a landlord. I feel I have a partner."
Surviving the dot-com demise
As students, Patrick Matthews (finance '02) and Bill Boebel (computer engineering '01) were fascinated by the burgeoning commercialization of the Internet and the meteoric rise of dot-com businesses, a time Matthews labels "an entrepreneurial dream."
Like many enthusiastic university students across the nation, they decided to launch a dot-com business, incorporating in December 1999. Then, with only one full semester remaining until graduation, Matthews recalls, "things were getting a bit overwhelming," and the two dropped out to focus full-time on their business.
After the stock market plummeted in April 2000, previously interested investors stopped returning Matthews' phone calls. As dot-com companies disbanded left and right and the country entered a full-blown economic slump, the two faced a choice: pull the plug or push forward?
Pushing forward, the partners spent most of 2001 redefining their company and hunting down customers to transform their business from an ailing dot-com to a technology firm. They also took turns completing their degrees: Boebel returned to Tech first, and Matthews soon followed.
Today, Matthews, chief executive officer, and Boebel, chief technology officer, direct Excedent Technologies, which provides more than 1,000 small businesses with managed e-mail hosting solutions.
"We chose to open an office at the CRC because we feel that Blacksburg is an up-and-coming technology town with great resources to offer young businesses," says Matthews. "Our experience at the CRC has been great. The location of the university also presents us with a great talent pool for part- and full-time employees"--75 percent of whom are Tech alumni.
In the early 1990s, five close friends, all studying engineering, excelled in their studies and were well known, both individually and as a group, among Tech's electrical and computer engineering faculty. Upon graduating, they left for different parts of the country and jobs with industry giants--IBM, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and General Electric--where each became a highly valued chip designer.
In late 2000, when Peter Wang launched Intransa Inc., which produces data storage systems for information technology groups, he needed a few engineers for his start-up venture. On advice from his then-partner, Wang contacted a Tech faculty member for some suggestions and was given the names of the five friends.
Kevin Paar (computer engineering '93; M.S. electrical engineering '96), today a senior hardware engineer at Intransa, admits that his decision to leave Hewlett Packard wasn't a difficult one. "We didn't think [Intransa] was going to flop, is what it comes down to," he says. Tom Brooks (computer engineering '98), formerly of GE and now a digital system design engineer at Intransa, agrees, noting that the opportunity "was good enough that it was time for us to jump ship from where we were."
Along with Paar and Brooks, hardware engineering manager Henry Green (computer engineering '94; M.S. electrical engineering '96), who left Intel; senior hardware engineer Mark Cherbaka (computer engineering '93; M.S. electrical engineering '96), who left IBM; and digital system design engineer Paul McFall (electrical engineering '98), who left GE, comprise the Intransa engineering team now based at the CRC.
The team developed a network storage system that uses existing Ethernet and Internet protocol networks, and in June announced its first client, BlueStar Solutions, one of the businesses that first tested the system. Since then, Intransa has secured $40 million in funding.
Although Intransa's marketing and software departments are located in San Jose, Calif., the engineering team is based at the CRC because, Brooks says, "we all wanted to live in Blacksburg." Green concurs, "Working at the CRC has been great. The combination of a high-tech atmosphere with small-town charm creates an ideal environment for all of us. Given the option of moving to Silicon Valley, we specifically chose Blacksburg and the CRC as a great place to live and work."
Making the move
Besides its lovely locale, the CRC provides myriad advantages to its companies and employees, not the least of which is its close relationship with Virginia Tech. As the largest research university in the commonwealth and among the top 50 in the country, Tech conducts more than $232 million in advanced research annually. And, among universities without medical schools, Tech ranks 10th nationally in patents, 6th in licenses, and 16th in royalty income.
If figures alone are not enough to attract potential entrepreneurs and employees, the CRC promotes both well-being and success among its tenants by offering a number of services not typically afforded smaller companies: comprehensive business assistance programs and training opportunities, world-class faculty members, preferential banking and venture capital relationships, personnel assistance, and a low-cost highband fiber-optics telecommunications infrastructure. In addition, CRC companies are granted student/faculty benefits of the university, including such perks as discounted bookstore purchases and access to sports and cultural event tickets.
The CRC also makes potential employees' job searches relatively easy: a visit to the center's Web page lists employment opportunities, as well as a link for submitting rsums electronically.
No wonder Tech alumni have carved a vital presence at the CRC. What's not to like?
Ask a Tech alum about Blacksburg, and the typical response is a variation on a theme: Blacksburg is a great place to live.
And this isn't just sentiment--over the years, "outsiders" have begun to agree.
In the early 1990s, Blacksburg was ranked first in Virginia and 20th in the country for its quality of services, cost of living, safety, housing, climate, and leisure by David Savageau and Richard Boyer in Retirement Places Rated.
With a population hovering around 40,000 and moderate seasonal temperatures, Blacksburg was last year named a top 20 retirement town by Blue Ridge Country magazine, and the eighth best place to live in the nation and the very best in the mid-Atlantic by Men's Journal.
But Blacksburg refuses to simply rest on its laurels. This past year, as part of the National Citizens Survey--a nationwide endeavor to understand residents' concerns at the local level--respondents in Blacksburg gave the highest ratings to their town's appearance, openness, and acceptance, as well as its many cultural opportunities. Blacksburg also fulfills one of the most important community characteristics that retirees consider before relocating to an area: a low crime rate. Indeed, 91 percent of town residents reported they feel safe in their neighborhoods, and Blacksburg overall received a rating of 75 (out of 100) as a good place to live.
Without a doubt, Blacksburg is a friendly town--especially downtown among its more than 160 businesses and restaurants--and residents like that it's so easy to meet people and to see these people out and about, one of the reasons Blacksburg was cited last year in Gerald Sweitzer and Kathy Field's 50 Best Small Southern Towns. The surrounding countryside is equally exciting and naturally beautiful, prompting Outside Magazine to name Blacksburg a top 10 "dream town" for outdoors enthusiasts.
The university's presence, which brings approximately 26,000 students to town, guarantees a variety of cultural activities and sporting events; in fact, The Sporting News ranked Blacksburg 61 out of 375 as a "best sports city."
And even with many of the attractions of a larger city, Blacksburg can still boast of low taxes, relatively low humidity, and low-stress traffic. Add to all of this the number of services that directly target the town's increasing number of retirement-age residents, such as accessible health care, enhanced public care services, and convenient public transportation, and Blacksburg tops many a list of favorite destinations, even among non-Hokies.
To learn more about Blacksburg, go to www.blacksburg.gov.