CEO Connect | One-On-One with David Catalano, Ozmo

We are very excited to introduce you to David Catalano, CEO of Ozmo. Headquartered in Blacksburg, VA, Ozmo was founded in 2016 with the mission to answer every tech support question without human intervention! Today, Ozmo is a leading provider of tech support answers, ultimately helping customer service agents and customers troubleshoot issues with ease and confidence.

Did you know: The name “Ozmo” is derived from “cosmos,” meaning the universe or system of thought and “osmosis,” the gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas and knowledge.

Learn more about Ozmo here.

CEO Insights: FlexMetrics Jay Foster

It was a woman who lured Jay Foster back home to Roanoke in the 1990s from Silicon Valley where he’d founded his own electronics design engineering company.

Foster would eventually marry that woman, but what has kept the FlexMetrics CEO rooted since then to Southwest Virginia?

The region’s quality of life.

Proximity to his alma mater Virginia Tech.

The Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council.

Mentors willing to help.

“All definitely contributed to this being a great place to start and grow a company.”

Founded in 1997 while Foster was finishing his MBA at Virginia Tech, FlexMetrics today employs 12 inside the downtown Roanoke building that houses RAMP, the regional business accelerator for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Flex is “a FitBit for a manufacturing line,” Foster explains, that strives to improve a factory’s productivity. By collecting “shop floor to top floor” data — such as the ideal speed to run a line, key performance indicators of the work crew and maintenance team, time and materials wasted during product changes, etc. — Flex maximizes a factory’s performance and can yield data on whether a company should invest in additional personnel or capital improvements”.

“Last year we celebrated passing 1,000 production lines for our customers, who are mostly in the U.S. but also Canada, Guatemala, New Zealand, and Germany,” Foster said.

Born in Roanoke and raised in the New River Valley, Foster served as the fourth president of RBTC in the early 2000s: “That experience was one of the best experiences to that point in my life.”

As bullish as he remains about the Roanoke-Blacksburg community, Foster does suggest four interrelated ideas for improvement:

  1. Renewed work on attracting more talent — aka “the creative class” — to the region. “That continues to be a challenge; the lack of talent is a constraint.”
  2. Better air transportation with more direct connections from the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. 
  3. Deeper connections between Virginia Tech and Roanoke. “We need to continue to see more Hokie Stone in the Roanoke Valley. The medical school is very important, and it’s absolutely fascinating to think about that resource. I don’t know how many people really appreciate how important VTC will be to our region’s economic growth in the years ahead.
  4. “The region and our identity are evolving. We need to be more intentional about who we are as a single region — that critical mass that we need to establish between the Roanoke and New River valleys. Having that larger footprint just brings more opportunity.”

A self-described “intense” and “driven” CEO, Foster is excited about FlexMetrics’ future growth, especially as his current customers seek to incorporate Flex on more of their manufacturing lines.

“What is most rewarding to me is seeing our customers get value from their investment in Flex,” he says. “It’s not about that high growth but more about quality over quantity. We want to see the adoption of Flex by current customers with 100 percent penetration, because that’s a signal of Flex delivering value. That means a lot to me.”

CEO Interview Series: Q&A with Steve Cooper, CEO Exelaration

Bio courtesy of

With over 30 years’ experience in technology consulting, Steve Cooper has founded three successful companies whose clients include Fortune 100 companies, leading federal agencies, and world-class non-profit organizations. Starting his career as one of the first relational database experts, Steve’s focus is helping individuals achieve exceptional careers, and helping leaders build organizations around them. He founded NextUp Solutions to focus on transformative learning for teams and individuals. Steve is a vocal leader in the effort to invite more diverse and abundant participants to the technology workplace through internships and experiential learning.

Who are the mentors and peers that have helped you grow professionally?

When I started my first company, I didn’t start it by myself. I started it with three other partners and we started it together.  We were constantly learning from each other. There were skills that I didn’t have that I knew I needed to develop that I got from my partners and skills that they needed for me.  We filled in a lot of gaps around each other. Similarly, with my second company, three of us started the company together as equal partners and learned from each other. In fact, I still learn from both of my partners at Excella. Now, At NextUp Solutions and Exelaration, I still lean on all of those resources and those experiences, as well as the broader network of the chamber of commerce in Arlington, the RBTC, the leadership teams at Exelaration, and NextUp Solutions.

You never stop learning. You never stop getting better. You never stop fixing what you think are your weak points and brighten and magnify the parts of you that you think are successful.

What is your advice for a Director or Manager making a career move toward a C-Level position?

I always equate the C-Suite to two other “C” words: conspicuous and change. That’s why I always liked the term, “C-suite.”  It tends to mean chief executive officer or chief information officer. But to me, the two Cs that are the most important for the C-suite is being conspicuous and dealing with change. As a leader, you need to know what they both mean to you.

Conspicuous means you have to put yourself out there. Your customers need to know you. Your employees need to know you. And they need to see you. There are a lot of leaders that tend to hide or wait to be called upon when someone reaches out to them. And I think that’s a mistake. I think if you’re entering top leadership, or if you’re entering the C-suite level, you’ve really got to work to be conspicuous and make sure that people see you. They want to see you. They want to hear from you. They want to know what your views are. They want to read articles from you or about you. The point is that you really are doing yourself a disservice if you’re not expressing yourself, because people want to hear from you often.

The same thing is true with change. You have to know what changes need to be made, spot them, and lead the change rather than wait for someone else. Changes are a big part of business and, let’s face it, every project that we’re working on in IT is a change. If we’re putting in a new system, upgrading a system, adding something, rolling out a new app; all are examples of changes that a leader has decided is important for their customers.

What are some of the most valuable lessons you incorporate from your daily life into your professional life?

People can always say we’re building technology, we’re selling technology, we’re building software, but it’s really all about people. People who come to work feeling unworthy or feeling like they are just a cog in a wheel are not going to be there long. The biggest problem I’ve seen in my professional sphere is the ability to attract and retain talented people. There is always a lack of that.

People want to work for something that’s valuable.  They want to feel like they’re contributing. They want to see their contribution matter and see that they’re making an impact in someone’s life by what they’re building, or making, or doing. And if they don’t see that, they’re not going to work hard. They’re not going to be happy. They’re not going to end their day happy. They’re not going to come to work happy.

I think leaders need to understand that. You have to connect, for every person individually, why what they’re doing is linked to the larger, more important mission. That part is a real challenge for leaders. But it just takes spending time with people. Being conspicuous as a leader is important because it means that you’re spending time learning.  What makes someone tick? What do they care about? Are they feeling like they are connected to the mission of the company, or the project, or whatever it may be that you are building?

What inspires you to stay motivated as a leader to your team and in your industry?

One thing for sure is stripping away what is unnecessary. As a leader, you can get a lot of baggage loaded onto you that seems unnecessary. As a leader, I try to strip a lot of that away and focus only on what is important. I’ll give you an example.

At Excella, we used to do performance appraisals and it took about two and a half months every year to complete. That’s a lot of time to be preparing, working on, or evaluating these appraisals. They became a huge process that employees dreaded for the rest of the year. It became something that drained the company’s energy. So, at Exeleration and NextUp Solutions, we made the decision to eliminate these appraisals. We decided. we’re not doing that!

Instead, we stay focused on the mission; giving as many tech opportunities to as many students as we can and building great software for as many clients as we can. Whatever distracts from that mission needs to be stripped away.

The same thing is true in life. What can I do for myself that lets me come to work full every day? I’m trying to strip away those things that are not important. If I have a board meeting, I could spend a month preparing for that board meeting, right? And I could probably spend months making a slide deck, a shareholder letter, preparing notes, and putting together an agenda.  But how is that helping with the mission?  I know that I want to engage the board members, get them energized, and get them excited. Maybe I bring in a couple of students or a customer to speak at the board meeting. Maybe I go over the financials and discuss what our challenges are. That’s it.

Let’s simplify and not make the process a big production. That is a distraction. I think a lot of leadership is about stripping away and saying no to a lot of things, and knowing what the purity of your real mission is. It likely has something to do with the customer and employees. The rest? It has to be stripped.

How does being a member of the RBTC contribute to your success?

I love what has happened in the Roanoke-Blacksburg community over the last 10 years that we’ve been involved. I can say that in that time, this community has attracted amazing amounts of energy, startups, and businesses that are growing. The businesses that are being built, the organizations, the teams, the community that is happening in the Roanoke-Blacksburg area, it’s just remarkable. The thing that we see more and more now is our student partners at Exelaration saying,

“You know what? My ideal place to live is right here! I came to school here, and I don’t want to leave. I’m getting job offers from Richmond or Washington or Austin or Silicon Valley or Los Angeles, but I really just want to stay here. And now I can, because there are new startups in health care, biotech, transportation, energy, in all these areas that are exploding now.”

I’m just so proud to be a part of this membership because the Roanoke Blacksburg technology community is really growing up into a wonderful, beautiful place, not only to do business, but to meet people, connect with people, to learn from people.  It’s just an awesome community.



CEO Insights: Ramping Up Tech Entrepreneurs

How do you increase the success rate for technology entrepreneurs in our region? You accelerate them by giving them a place to move from launch to growth, which is exactly what the new regional business accelerator in downtown Roanoke plans to do. Having an incubator as a place for entrepreneurs to get support and launch their company is just the beginning. An accelerator is an altogether different idea and those businesses that make it to the finish line, have a much better chance at success.

Last year, Roanoke received a grant to turn the old Gill Memorial Hospital building on South Jefferson Street downtown into a “technology accelerator”. With an expected completion date of December 2016, The Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council (RBTC), City of Roanoke, Virginia Western Community College, and other key advisors are coming together to create the Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program, or RAMP. This highly-focused acceleration program will evaluate entrepreneur applicants, favor those who intend to stay in the region, and select three to five technology companies per year for an intensive three-to-four-month structured mentoring “boot camp” designed to build, test, improve, and speed to market a company’s product. The RAMP Accelerator fulfills several conditions for not only technology entrepreneurship, but also improvement of the entire Roanoke-Blacksburg innovation ecosystem.

The goal of an accelerator is rapid growth, but also to sort out all of the operational and other strategic challenges for a business and make them “investor ready”. Businesses may fail or stagnate, but do so sooner in an accelerator program, and they’re able to change their trajectory faster and learn more quickly how to be a successful company. According to the Brookings Institute, accelerators differ from incubators and other ecosystem players because they’re fixed term, cohort-based, mentor-driven, and culminate in a graduation or demo day. Incubators lack the expedience to launch businesses and carry many under-performing companies for years. What makes accelerators so valuable and desirable to startups? Brookings found that accelerators offer the kind of immersive and focused education that all founders eventually learn, but the accelerator program speeds up the learning cycle. The RAMP Accelerator is designed to do the same and bypass the years it may take to launch a successful business to stand on its own.

“Business acceleration” is a growing trend in the commonwealth tied to technology startups and the hopes of sparking Virginia’s innovation economy. With the highest density of technology professionals of any state, it makes sense to allow a venue where ideas can be heard and supported, both financially and with mentorship. Since 2005, the number of accelerators has grown to almost 200 in the U.S. with 50 percent growth year-to-year between 2005 and 2014. Companies like AirBnB, DropBox, and Reddit are just a few well-known accelerator graduate names. In our region, we have seen a number of technology companies leave for accelerator programs elsewhere. The goal of RAMP is to keep our local technology entrepreneurs here by offering them the access to mentors and other valuable resources they so desperately need.

An active accelerator concentrates a lot of activity in a community in one place – generating vibrancy around innovation, and giving various ecosystem actors exposure to one another in a dynamic environment. Basically, wherever there is a collection of innovative startups, there’s typically an accelerator backing them up. Brookings also found that in cities where an accelerator is established, the city typically has more seed and early-stage entrepreneurial financing activity, even for non-accelerator companies, and more venture capital to the regional economy in general. Attracting venture capital to a region has positive impact on broader employment growth and entrepreneurship. Accelerators play a critical role because regardless of the seed financing or venture capital the program graduates can attract, it’s how well they can build a network of support for their peers and future companies, collectively creating more jobs as a result. The future of the technology industry depends on the success of accelerator programs, both in the Roanoke-Blacksburg region and across the commonwealth and nation.

Technology startup hubs like San Francisco-Silicon Valley, Boston-Cambridge, and New York claim 40 percent of the accelerator programs. But good activity is happening in smaller cities like Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Boulder. Technology companies not only need seed money, they thrive on the right mix of other high-tech companies, mentors, and graduates in the region. That mix of assets kick starts entrepreneurship and it’s exactly what RAMP intends to pull from for success. The recent Kauffman Foundation Index of Growth Entrepreneurship finds that the five highest ranked metropolitan areas are Washington, D.C., Austin, San Jose, Columbus, and Nashville. Columbus. With a marketing and advertising industry focus, Columbus had a first place rank for share of scale-ups and a fourth place rank in the overall index – the city’s success at entrepreneurial growth is a validation for the region’s startup ecosystem.

If a startup ecosystem is to thrive in the Roanoke-Blacksburg region, the use of effective mentors offered with RAMP will be the start. RBTC intends to elicit the best of our region, specific to startups, to provide sound counsel. The RAMP accelerator will also need to build a culture of entrepreneurship around the accelerator that perpetuates the program for a lifetime. As a highly collaborative initiative among technology mentors, higher education, and government, RAMP is just another way forward to speed up the region’s entrepreneurship rankings, employment, and the overall diversified growth of our economy.

(This post also appeared on the Roanoke Times website)

CEO Insights: The New Innovation District

CEO Insights is a new series on the RBTC blog that features technology and business perspectives from the RBTC President and CEO, Jonathan Whitt.

What’s in a name? In years past, particular areas of cities have been labeled “manufacturing district” or “industrial district” or even “garment district.” Now there’s a new designation – “innovation district”. You may have heard the term in reference to the Virginia Tech Carilion expansion in Roanoke. The leaders of these two anchor institutions plan to join forces to create a “medical hub” combining in-demand health science degree programs, students, additional research teams, technological expertise, and regional clinical practices. This unique blend of focused inputs will in turn launch businesses, create high-paying jobs, attract top medical practitioners and faculty, and ultimately improve Southwest Virginia healthcare.

Innovation districts are a growing trend in the U.S., which according to Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brooking Institution, “nurture living, breathing communities rather than sterile compounds of research silos”. Firms and workers want to find compact areas in which to live and work while surrounded by networking opportunities and new idea creation. Unlike the original model in Silicon Valley where firms were isolated on a campus or in an industrial park, innovation districts allow workers, businesses, and research to co-exist in one accessible space surrounded by housing and retail to support them. Innovation breeds in these districts, and so does economic growth.

Brookings defines them as “geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster while connecting with start-ups, business incubators, and accelerators. They’re also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.” Innovation districts are found near anchor institutions like in Atlanta, Baltimore, or Cambridge, while some are in re-imagined industrial areas such as those in Boston, Chicago, or Seattle. Katz calls these districts the “ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”

So, why is this “district” so important to our region? First, the Carilion/Virginia Tech alliance will foster collaboration between institutions, researchers, companies, investors, and entrepreneurs to create sustainable job growth and attract investors. Investment leads to new products and services launching which, according to Brookings, “help a city move up the value chain of global competitiveness”. Concentrating talent in specific areas of research and business creation with the support of the city’s outdoor and mixed-use amenities, will enable both institutions to complete on a global scale and set Roanoke apart among others districts around the country.

According to a recent Kaufmann report, dense environments help support entrepreneurial vibrancy. Entrepreneurs thrive because low-risk workspaces are created and crucial networking is close at hand as are resources, goods, and labor sharing – all helping to enhance innovation. In this “age of convergence”, focusing on applied sciences, biosciences, and digital technologies, definitely opens up new possibilities for commercialization.

What defines success? To reach full potential, a district must have economic, physical, and networking assets. Combined with a supporting, risk-taking culture, they create what Brookings calls an “innovation ecosystem – a synergistic relationship between people, firms, and place that facilitate idea generation and accelerate commercialization.”

Economic drivers, like Carilion and Virginia Tech, as well as firms and entrepreneurs focused on getting products and services to market serve to lay a strong foundation for the innovation district. Along with partners in these efforts such as the City of Roanoke, Virginia Western Community College, the Roanoke – Blacksburg Technology Council, and the new regional business accelerator coming to Jefferson Street, the innovation district is already coming to life. Neighborhood-building amenities – restaurants, recreation, coffee shops, hotels, and retail – all help to support the district’s success. Parks, shared spaces, greenways, shuttle buses, and pedestrian-oriented streets physically support the collaboration. Finally, networking assets strengthen ties and cultivate innovation across all players. All these assets weave the district together and tie it to the broader metro area, which expand the district’s influence well beyond the borders of Roanoke City, something that serves as a catalyst for growth across the entire region.

Successful innovation district practitioners share five strategies for success: build a collaborative leadership network, set a vision for growth, pursue talent and technology, enhance access to capital, and promote inclusive growth. When you overlay these five strategies on the core values and objectives of the Roanoke – Blacksburg Innovation Blueprint (a technology-focused plan for economic growth), the language is similar. The start of this innovation district creates a unique opportunity to transform the Roanoke – Blacksburg region into a nationally recognized hub for innovation.

The rise of innovation districts is a disruptive sign of the times for cities like Roanoke looking for a path forward. Carilion and Virginia Tech are leading the way and it’s the job of city and state government, financial institutions, and the business community to join the team. The result: a step toward building a more sustainable and inclusive economy for this region.

CEO Insights: Company Exits – Sowing Seeds for Future Growth

CEO Insights is a new series on the RBTC blog that features technology and business perspectives from the RBTC President and CEO, Jonathan Whitt.

When we think of saying goodbye, we usually don’t want to say that to the locally-owned companies that leave our community. A recent Roanoke Times editorial mentions Heyo and Interactive Achievement as two such examples. However, the recent “exits” of these high-tech start-ups demonstrates the workings of a healthy, growth-oriented entrepreneurial ecosystem in our community. They are not our first either, in fact there have been several others over the past few years. Let me explain why that’s a good sign for our community.

A prime example of this is the story of ITT, which was a pioneer in fiber optics and spawned the creation of Optical Cable Corporation. Then there’s also Innotech, which led to Pixel Optics (and a few other companies), not to mention New River Pharmaceuticals, which was followed by Intrexon. When these companies “went public” (via IPOs) their exits seeded the next generation of entrepreneurs and the entrance of new prosperous locally-owned technology companies, which in turn strengthened our community.

All companies have lifecycles and if successful, it may include selling to a larger company. These company exits cultivate an innovative environment in the region that attracts smart entrepreneurs. It also cultivates an ecosystem that continually refreshes an infrastructure to support creativity and risk taking. Ultimately, this leads to more successful companies. This environment creates profitable, diverse businesses, quality jobs, and the building of local wealth for both entrepreneurs and investors. An entrepreneurial economy strengthens the community with tax revenues, philanthropy, new business leaders, and investments into other businesses.

Consider these facts when thinking about the recent press about job losses. Most jobs in our region (84%) are from “homegrown” or “resident” businesses and the number of these jobs have dramatically increased over time. Since 2009, “non-resident” companies (out-of-state headquartered), have lost 9,000 jobs compared to a growth of 37,000 from our resident businesses.

Privco’s 2014 Private Tech Company M&A Research Report states that the number of tech companies worth acquiring is the ultimate barometer that a city is a top-notch tech hub. Another example of a local high-growth technology company that started as a homegrown business is grew dramatically and was acquired by Rackspace in 2007, which shifted it into the non-resident category, but it was able to grow its customer and revenue base significantly, opening a new building in 2014. Rackspace has expanded from 73 to more than125 employees since 2009 and continues to do well, and it certainly bucks the trend of non-resident businesses losing jobs.

In the March 2015 Kauffman Report (private educational foundation), one of the four indicators used to measure the vibrancy of an entrepreneurial ecosystem is connectivity. Entrepreneurs thrive in a community where they’re able to obtain knowledge and assistance from a variety of sources. But it’s the connectivity between these organizations that help build a strong entrepreneurial network. These “dealmaker” organizations serve as mediators in the formation of new firms. Locally, the connectivity between the RBTC, economic and workforce development organizations, higher education institutions, and other business organizations supports this type of activity. More importantly, observing connectivity over time, the Kauffman Report states that one way connectivity manifests itself is through spinoffs. “The entrepreneurial ‘genealogy’ of a given region, as measured by links between entrepreneurs and existing companies, is an important indicator of sustained vibrancy.” In Silicon Valley, generations of spinoffs have helped periods of business renewal. Closer to home, as well as in secondary technology markets like Austin, Boulder, and Seattle, exits of companies provide the fertile ground for new companies and job creation.

In a Progressive Policy Institute memo: “Innovation by Acquisition-New Dynamics of High-Tech Competition,” the dynamic described is similar to what we’ve seen in our region. “An increase in start-up activity potentially leads to an increase in the number of successful startups – companies whose innovative products and services find a large enough market to warrant going public or being acquired. That gives us a feedback loop – a higher rate of acquisition accelerates the rate of startups and innovation, while an increase in the rate of startups and innovation forces large companies to speed up their rate of acquisition.” Historical trends show that innovations derived from acquisitions are positively correlated with employment growth. “Successful acquisitions are both a cause of and a consequence of rapid innovation, and innovation spurs economic growth and job creation.”

It can be said with confidence that technology acquisitions, like those seen in our community, encourage innovation and are usually associated with gains in economic growth and job creation. This cycle of constant innovation, acquisitions, reinvestment, and new company start-ups leads to a sustainable economic growth pattern for our region and one that we need to continue to champion and celebrate.