Tom Tom festival to spark conversations about local innovation and entrepreneurs

As the inaugural Tom Tom Founders Festival launches today, one co-founder has made sure the month-long event produces a lot more than art and music.

Oliver Platts-Mills is responsible for the festival’s innovation series, a new grassroots effort to celebrate the area’s talents and brand Charlottesville as the hip place to be an entrepreneur. He and Tom Tom co-founder Paul Beyer both grew up in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area.

“When we started talking to Paul about Tom Tom — this concept of a music festival on the Downtown Mall — Paul realized that he wanted it to be more than a music festival, to include art and some other creative aspects,” Platts-Mills said. “I’m a big proponent of when you want to talk about creativity broadly in Charlottesville, that we ought to include innovation.”

When he’s not planning a major new festival, Platts-Mills is an analyst at Investure, an investment management firm for nonprofits and university endowments. His wife, Natasha Sienitsky , also a Tom Tom organizer, serves on the Charlottesville Planning Commission .

“If you were just to look at music and art, you’d be missing out on a great deal of creative work,” Platts-Mills said. “And I also thought that the synergy between these different things is very, very interesting and exciting.”

Tom Tom kicks off with a block party at the McGuffey Art Center at 5 p.m. today, in honor of founding father Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, and concludes in a gala field day event May 13 at the Ix Building.

The innovation programming includes a series of free talks culminating in a keynote presentation on May 11 and a “locavore expo” on May 12, the same two days as the music portion of Tom Tom.

Every Monday during the festival, four resident entrepreneurs and artists will hold informal talks at the Tom Tom headquarters at 105 South First St. Every Wednesday, the conversation shifts to examples of local innovation with panel discussions at The Gleason at 126 Garrett St.

One of those panelists is Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree Apps , which has grown from 3 employees in early 2010 to 32 employees today. The company built Charlottesville Tomorrow’s iPhone application.

Charlottesville Tomorrow is a media partner of the Tom Tom Innovation Series

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“We are a software development company, and one of our biggest challenges is finding enough talent here in Charlottesville,” Dengel said.

Dengel thinks Charlottesville can grow as a software development center and be an attractive destination for new graduates, students who used to feel the pull towards big cities.

“When I graduated from school, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to New York, but the world has become a little bit smaller,” Dengel said. “Most of our clients are not in Charlottesville, they are New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. They work with us because we’re able to do a good job and we tend to be a little less expensive than our competitors in those cities because our overhead is lower.”

One supporter of local start-ups will be closely watching the festival’s progress.

Gary Henry is chairman of the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council and executive director of the Charlottesville Technology Incubator .

“We need to pull together as a community,” Henry said. “There are a number of organizations trying to find ways to support entrepreneurs and start-ups, particularly technology startups.”

“The University of Virginia has made great strides in that area through the innovation office,” Henry added. “We have a very vibrant, but nascent, entrepreneur community.”

In 2010, UVa named Mark Crowell its executive director of innovation partnerships. Crowell was engaged early in the Tom Tom planning by Beyer and Platts-Mills, and he will participate in the May 2 panel on biotech startups.

“Conceptually, I think it’s very exciting and a wonderful opportunity to showcase Charlottesville as cool, buzzing entrepreneurial and innovation hot spot,” Crowell said. “I am very interested in the qualities of place that make innovation, and innovation-based economic development happen faster and in a more robust way.”

“It has potential to be a great tool to help us recruit and retain talent both for the university and for the companies we help create,” Crowell added.

Henry emphasized it takes more than being a great place. He said CBIC and the technology incubator are prepared to offer a network of experienced entrepreneurs and managers to those trying to get a new business started.

“The area needs to have a reputation for something, it can’t just be that this is a beautiful place to live,” Henry said. “It needs to be just as attractive as a place to start a business and that’s where we need to do some work.”

For Platts-Mills, the “place” in Tom Tom’s “place-based innovation series” is a critical ingredient.

“When creating music, creating art, creating a small business, the importance of Charlottesville should not be understated,” Platts-Mills said. “So whatever that end product is, why does it happen in Charlottesville? I think it’s not just random, I think that Charlottesville has an influence.”

“We know that the university wants to get more stuff to stick in Charlottesville; certainly the city of Charlottesville as a stakeholder has a lot of interest,” Platts-Mills said. “What better way to do that than to have a music festival and an art festival where we can highlight some of those conversations.”

Follow the Tom Tom innovation series at .