The founders of Astraea. Seated, left to right: Daniel Bailey and Brendan Richardson. Standing, left to right: Matt Eldridge, Kim Scott, Simeon Fitch. Credit: Credit: Ryan Kelly, The Daily Progress

Startup wins economic development incentives from state, city

After completing its first year with its original team of five co-founders, Charlottesville software startup Astraea is poised to enter a phase of rapid growth. 

Last week, the office of Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that Astraea would expand its offices in Charlottesville and add 31 employees over the next three years.
Astraea is developing software to rapidly process satellite image data, allowing researchers to identify and predict real-time changes in land use, traffic patterns, land and water quality, and environmental trends. 
Astraea’s software makes use of machine learning, the ability of computers to recognize patterns and search for relevant information without being programmed to perform specific tasks.
Four of Astraea’s co-founders have previously worked for other local companies specializing in data science and machine learning, including Elder Research and Commonwealth Computer Research, 
“Here in Charlottesville, you’re beginning to see a little bit of what happens in Silicon Valley,” said CEO Brendan Richardson. “You’re going to see more data scientists spinning out of where they are, and starting companies around interesting problems that machine learning and artificial intelligence can solve. To me, that’s a marker that this startup ecosystem in Charlottesville is really starting to take hold.”
“[Richardson] has a long track record of successfully financing his business ventures, and he has chosen to deepen his roots here in Charlottesville,” said Jason Ness, business development manager for the city.
Astraea recently closed a $3.3 million round of private investment. Richardson said Jaffray Woodriff’s Felton Group fund was among the company’s first investors. 
Astraea’s potential to create dozens of high-paying jobs helped it secure public investment from the Virginia Economic Development Program and the City of Charlottesville. 
The Virginia Jobs Investment Program will award Astraea $1,000 per new hire— up to $31,000— to help offset the company’s recruiting and training costs. Charlottesville’s VJIP Match program, funded by the city’s Economic Development Authority, will match the state’s contribution with up to $10,000 annually through fiscal year 2020. It will provide an additional $500 bonus for hiring city residents. 
Richardson previously co-founded PsiKick, a sensor technology startup with offices in Charlottesville, California and Michigan. He said PsiKick has made use of VJIP funding for new hires and to transfer employees at its satellite offices to its Charlottesville headquarters. 
Astraea expects to hire 11 data scientists, 11 software engineers, six user interface engineers, and three management support staff by July 2020. Richardson said two of those new employees will join the company this month.
Although Astraea is interviewing candidates from across the country, Richardson said he hoped to recruit as much local talent as possible. One of his new hires graduated from the University of Virginia this year. 
Richardson said it was necessary for his company to bridge a gap between data scientists and software developers, who tend to have differing interests and skill sets.
“These two groups speak in different languages,” Richardson said. “We always look to hire these unique individuals that are comfortable in both worlds— people that can build [data] models, and also write production level code. We like to call them ‘modelopers.’”
Astraea expects to make over $1 million in capital investment associated with its expansion, and must make at least $100,000 to fulfill the requirements of the VJIP Small Business New Jobs Program.
Some of this investment could go towards new server clusters that would expand Astraea’s capability to test its machine learning algorithms in-house. 
“You don’t always want to ship extremely large datasets into an Amazon cloud server… and do the computing there, because that can get very expensive,” Richardson said. “Instead, you can begin to develop and train the models on a smaller dataset and do it locally.”
Simeon Fitch, Astraea’s Vice President of Research and Development, said using local servers instead of a cloud computing service was comparable to purchasing a house instead of renting one. While ownership comes with many advantages, it comes at a considerable cost, he said. 
“Worrying about the costs of every second of cloud computing is a distraction,” Fitch said. “But our hardware purchasing plans could change as we experiment, and as the industry changes.”
Richardson said Astraea will make minor renovations to its offices in the Glass Building on 2nd Street. He said he hoped its expanded meeting space would host future gatherings of the Charlottesville Data Science Meetup group.
“We want to convene Charlottesville’s data science startup talent on a regular basis so we can begin to share best practices, and help this ecosystem expand,” Richardson said.

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.