The Charlottesville Business Innovation Council hosted a Tech Night Takeover last week with a panel discussion focused on manufacturing in and around Charlottesville.
Leaders of local companies making everything from healthy drinks to cardboard critters talked about the challenges and opportunities that exist for area innovators.
“It’s a great place to start a business even though it’s not the center of the universe for manufacturing,” said panelist Mike Appleby, president and CEO at Mikro Systems, a high-tech manufacturing company in Albemarle County.
The council’s executive director emphasized that the area is attractive to innovators because of its high quality of life.
“You can breathe when you get to this town,” Tracey Greene said.
CBIC is a membership-based nonprofit that has been actively involved in fostering the region’s innovation ecosystem since 1997. The organization focuses on education, celebration and advocacy on behalf of local entrepreneurs and the tech community.
CBIC supports startups by helping to secure investments, promoting a substantial pool of local tech employees and making sure innovators outside of the region know the area is a great place to put their stake in the ground.
At the same time, Greene emphasized, CBIC does not provide a perfect recipe for success to its members.
“I’m not going to hold your hand,” said Greene. “If you want access to this, you need to show up. What you put in is what you’ll get out.”
Beyond the startup phase, CBIC continues to work with area innovators to increase their success and provides educational and networking opportunities such as the Tech Night panels.
Panelist Jack Turner, director of operations for Lumi Juice, said the product his company manufactures uses 100 percent organic fruits and vegetables to offer customers seven juice flavors. A high-pressure pasteurization process retains a lot of the beverages’ vitamins and nutrients.
“It’s why we consume fruits and vegetables in the first place,” Turner said.
Turner praised the great sense of community in Charlottesville, highlighting the city’s willingness to work with Dominion Virginia Power to get electricity to Lumi Juice’s facilities quickly.
“That’s a great thing about being here in Charlottesville,” he said.
Turner also emphasized that Charlottesville is an ideal location for manufacturing companies such as Lumi Juice because of its proximity to rural farms.
“You won’t find that opportunity in a lot of other places,” he said.
Cardboard Safari produces computer-designed, laser-cut cardboard creations, ranging from animal busts to framed scenes and even furniture.
President Chris Jessee said Cardboard Safari uses locally sourced materials that are 100 percent recyclable. Cardboard creations are designed and manufactured in Charlottesville and sold all over the planet.
Jessee said he takes pride in bringing employees in at entry-level positions and watching them rise within the company.
“It is very satisfying to give people a growth path,” he said.
Mikro Systems began as three people with the goal of building a manufacturing technology and applying it to several market spaces to demonstrate its breadth.
“Our objective is to bring manufacturing solutions to our customers that are essentially better, faster and cheaper,” said Appleby.
Mikro Systems’ technology has been applied to medical imaging and gas turbines, and the company makes parts critical to both of these industries.
Mikro Systems now has 70 employees at its facility and another 40 at Siemens Energy. While panelists said the community had a good pool of skilled employees, Appleby said it’s easy to recruit workers from outside the region because Charlottesville is “such a beautiful place to live.”
Panelists also acknowledged challenges facing manufacturing in the area, including finding suitable property.
Turner said Lumi Juice’s equipment requires a lot of electricity, and finding a building that could source that amount of power was challenging.
Appleby said that at times innovative development and manufacturing are “diametrically opposed.” He said transitioning between the two can be difficult because manufacturing is all about following rules and innovation is about thinking outside the box.
Jessee applauded the help of local resources during the process.
“Managing a small company as it grows to 15 people is a challenge, and I don’t know that that’s really my strength,” he said.
Appleby praised the advisers who have helped Mikro Systems grow.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said.
He also talked about the goal of keeping manufacturing in Charlottesville.
When Mikro teamed up with Siemens Energy, Siemens wanted to put the factory in Germany or Charlotte, North Carolina. Mikro insisted that it remain in the United States, and specifically Charlottesville.
“And you know what? They did it. They really did it,” Appleby said.