The second annual Tomtoberfest kicked off Wednesday on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall with an unusual meeting between entrepreneurs and local politicians. The question before them: What are the politics of innovation?
Tomtoberfest is the fall version of April’s Tom Tom Founders Festival, organized by Paul Beyer and modeled after Austin’s SXSW event. Tom Tom celebrates local art, music, food and place-based innovation.
“Tom Tom is a festival about creativity and new ideas, especially those starting and staying in Charlottesville,” Beyer said. “Tonight’s forum is about the politics of innovation and how policy impacts the types of businesses that can start here.”
Tracey Danner, executive director of the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council, said support for the technology community is critical.
“The technology sector and Charlottesville really need each other,” Danner said. “New technology firms do more to create new jobs. High-tech businesses start lean and grow fast. … The addition of one high-tech job can create four other local service jobs.”
In the spirit of trying new things, the tables were turned on the candidates, who instead of sharing their campaign talking points were asked to listen to advice about starting and growing innovative businesses in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
Joel Selzer is a self-described “serial entrepreneur” and graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He launched his newest company, ArcheMedX, after returning to Charlottesville in 2012.
“This is a chance for our community to educate our elected officials about what is important to us,” Selzer said.
“When we think about what it takes to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem, all of those pieces are here in Charlottesville,” he added. “We have a fantastic place to live. There is a wonderful base of talent, but there is not enough. There is access to capital, research and tech transfer.”
The format of Wednesday’s event appeared to work in at least one critical way — it was standing-room-only at the Old Metropolitan Hall with more than 100 people in the audience.
Ten of the dozen candidates running for election to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Council participated. Seven tech-sector leaders, including Selzer, gave brief presentations and candidates were allowed to ask one question of an entrepreneur.
The presenters advocated for everything from a better brand for the region to responsive zoning and business incentives. They said help is needed to foster the culture of Charlottesville as a startup hub, to recruit and retain skilled workers, to build more office space near the Downtown Mall and to expand the community’s biotech lab space.
WillowTree Apps’ Blake Sirach said direct support of the tech sector’s networking and branding deserved focus.
“Organizations like Tom Tom and BeCamp can help bring regional and national talent to the area, so any backing by government to help organize local meet-ups and conferences would help,” Sirach said.
“I’m a firm believer that proximity to Grounds is a critical factor for early-stage companies,” said Mark Crowell, executive director of UVa Innovation. “There is a lot of evidence that the collision, friction, energy and heat of constant contact [among entrepreneurs] can be one of the most critical assets a community can build.”
For Martin Chapman, CEO of Indoor Biotechnologies, the location preference is more specific.
“Everyone wants the urban feel, the downtown rocks,” Chapman said. “We don’t really want to be stuck out in a field. I think the university could make more of the research park, and we are very much in favor of all the defense industries being stuck out there.”
“I think this event is fantastic for Charlottesville,” Selzer said. “We have a real effort to create a flourishing ecosystem to promote technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Tomtoberfest continues Friday with an evening block party at the McGuffey Art Center. A Founders Fair will be held Saturday at UVa’s Amphitheater. In a blend of innovation and music, the fair will showcase more than 75 entrepreneurial ventures and seven renown a capella groups.
Visit www.tomtomfest.com for event schedules.
Local candidates at the Tomtoberfest Candidate Forum
Credit: Ryan M. Kelly, The Daily Progress