An effort by Governor Terry McAuliffe to award five $25,000 grants to small Virginia startups will make its way to Charlottesville Sept. 23.
The Virginia Velocity Tour, which will stop in five cities around the commonwealth, will wrap up a week-long bus tour at The Haven, in conjunction with Tomtoberfest, the Tom Tom Founders Festival’s fall block party.
Applications to participate in the pitch night close Aug. 18, according to Velocity Tour spokesman Daniel Willson. To qualify, companies must have been in operation at least six months and raised less than $500,000.
The grant funding is being provided by the state, but the day-to-day operations and promotion of the tour are being handled by Washington, D.C.-based Village Capital.
“We think that the ideas that are going to build the 21st Century economy could be right under our noses,” said Village Capital CEO Ross Baird. “Everyone goes to New York or Silicon Valley for the next great idea, but we think the next breakthrough in agriculture might be in the Charlottesville area, or the next energy breakthrough might be in Southwest Virginia.”
The governor’s office hopes the tour will give Virginia a leg up in creating, rather than simply attracting, businesses.
“The reason to focus on the small stuff is that they are the next Google,” said Virginia Secretary of Commerce Maurice Jones. “You have to get in on the ground floor and provide funding and help these small businesses thrive.”
For businesses below that funding level, said Tom Tom Founders Festival Director Paul Beyer, an infusion of non-equity cash has a two benefits.
“All kinds of entrepreneurs in their early days are running very lean enterprises, and that kind of infusion of capital is literally what allows them to keep the lights on,” he said. “Not to mention that it is just a tremendous vote of confidence from the state that their work is meaningful and there is belief in their success.”
Before the pitch night, the entrepreneurs in the competition and local elected officials and businesspeople will tour area businesses that have thrived.
The Central Virginia leg of the tour will focus on agriculture and food, Willson said, but startups in any business are encouraged to apply. Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said he hopes a variety of startups will turn out.
“While we do have exciting food and agriculture-related businesses, and while I understand the organizers want to focus on specific areas for each city, Charlottesville is thriving in many other areas, from biotech to web design to online education, and so I have encouraged the organizers to cast their Charlottesville visit as broadly and inclusively as possible,” he said.
The tour stop, coupled with Entrepreneur Magazine ranking Charlottesville fourth nationally on a list of best places for entrepreneurs, should be a boon for the local economy, Signer said.
“This is more good news and momentum for our innovation ecosystem, not to mention hopefully some dollars for our entrepreneurs,” he said.
Baird, a University of Virginia alumnus, said funding startups is the way to large-scale economic changes.
“If you are trying to create economic growth through big institutions it can be incremental, but if you want to make institutional changes, startups are the way to go,” he said. “You know, 20 years ago CapitalOne was a startup, and it has changed the way people access financial services … the University of Virginia was a startup 200 years ago, and it has changed the way people access education.”