Warner: Commonwealth must connect tech and innovation hubs

United States Senator Mark Warner Friday told a gathering of Charlottesville elected officials, city staff and business leaders that the city’s burgeoning community of startups, tech firms and entrepreneurs cannot exist in a vacuum.

For that culture to thrive, Warner said, city, state and federal officials must work to create a statewide network, rather than a patchwork of tech enclaves.

“You guys are in a really good position here in Charlottesville … what I would challenge you to do is, if we are going to get this right, we simply cannot have these innovation hubs in the cool places,” he said. ““The idea of how … we share that with Roanoke and Winchester and Harrisonburg … if we can do that for the Commonwealth, and brand that for Virginia … that is what we hope to do.”

To do that, Warner said, he would like to see a “backbone” network of ideas and tactics from universities, funders and businesspeople so that a blueprint exists for growing communities.

“How do we make sure we do not have to rewrite the instruction book in every community?” Warner asked. “Can we put together a virtual or real backbone that would have some kind of shared calendar, sharing of funders, sharing of connections between stakeholders in like-minded spaces?”

Warner added that with a growing number of people making their livings as independent contractors and freelancers, it is incumbent on the federal government to find ways for those workers to get benefits like health insurance.

“The truth is, you all have chosen to be entrepreneurs because you want to be … Keep in mind that 35 percent of America’s workforce is not in traditional work environments,” he said. “There is an upside to that, but there is a whole host of other responsibilities.”

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, who led local efforts to organize the event, hoped Warner’s visit help develop a broader vision for the local economy.

“With every new tech job that is created, we are worried about the poverty rates, and every time there is a new development, we are worried about the effect on traditional neighborhoods,” Signer said. “The vision is really important, because even though it is informal, it is going to influence a whole host of policymakers.”

Building vision and entrepreneurial spirit should start early, said Rick Kulow, senior entrepreneur in residence at the at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

“The Albemarle County public schools are looking at something that might be an interesting long-term solution, and that is they are looking at entrepreneurship as a life skill,” Kulow said. “That can be applied to getting better grades, learning an instrument or getting into school.”

Business owners and executives said they face challenges getting their hands on appropriate office space and retaining talented hires.

Tobias Dengel, CEO of WillowTree Apps, asked Warner to focus on lifting barriers to talented workers staying in the United States.

“What drives us crazy is that we have these incredible kids who we hire as interns when they are at UVa, but we cannot keep them because they are international,” Dengel said. “All they want to do is stay here and it is brutal to see that talent leaving this town.”

Deb McMahon, president and CEO of Scitent, said her company could use help hiring interns.

“One of the things I have thought about is to have the federal or state or municipal governments funding internships,” she said. “As a company, we really operate at a high level of efficiency, and taking on internships for us is can be a drag on that.”