Take Five with Mary Miller, President of IDD

Take Five is an ongoing RBTC question and answer series where we glean insights from local CEOs and technology leaders in the Roanoke-Blacksburg area.

Mary Miller, Ph.D. is president and founder of Interactive Design and Development, Inc. (IDD), an award-winning information technology firm in Blacksburg. Under her leadership and guidance, IDD has created multimedia products, web design and development, interactive touch screen kiosks, and custom information technology solutions for a wide range of organizations, including many Fortune 500 companies. She has served on many boards and advisory committees, including Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering’s Committee of 100, the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Advisory Board and the Dean’s Advisory Council, the Advisory Board for the Department of Computer Science, and the Virginia 4-H Foundation’s Board. She was inducted into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Academy of Excellence, joining an elite group of 97 individuals out of 55,000 living engineering alumni and was named the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Distinguished Alumna. She was presented with the Business Woman of the Year Award in 2014, the RBTC Hall of Fame award in 2015 and has served as past President of the RBTC.

RBTC: What are some of the regional resources that have contributed to your success?

Mary Miller: Peer support has been a large part of my success. Connectivity has made this region strong and it is full of generous business leaders. I would say our human capital resources are the most valuable resources we have.

RBTC: What makes the Roanoke-Blacksburg region such a good fit for your company?

Mary Miller: Quality of life is a large factor. Lifestyle is important to me, as well as the people I employ. The more leisurely atmosphere of this region allows working parents to still have time with their families. Virginia Tech is also a great resource because we live in a region of “thinkers and doers” and all of these resources are accessible us. It is wonderful region to live and work.

RBTC: If you could give one piece of advice to a fellow entrepreneur, what would it be?

Mary Miller: Get connected. Trying to go-it alone is a mistake. There are no roadblocks to keep you from getting connected in this region. Ask questions and listen. You can even learn from people that aren’t in your specific field. Growing a business has many more similarities than differences. It is easy to get connected in this region.

RBTC: What is one lesson you have learned over time that has made an impact on your business’ day-to-day operations?

Mary Miller: Get a banker, not just a bank, but also a banker. Start building a relationship with a banker, before you need their support. One thing I’ve learned over 25 years in business, is that you can’t stay in business if you run out of money. If you own a business you need a banker. I personally think community banks are the way to go, because they are vested in the communities they serve.

RBTC: How would you like to see the Roanoke-Blacksburg region develop over the next 5 years?

Mary Miller: Transportation in and out of the region has always been a challenge, and even though we are making progress, there is more to do. I am pleased to see we will soon have increased access to rail. I frequently take the train from Lynchburg to DC. It will be fabulous to have the train come to Christiansburg, but we have more to do. Our daily flights from the region are limited and expensive. I know many creative, capable people are working on these issues and I am confident that we will continue to improve on the transportation front.

I have always been proud that the RBTC works across the region without regard to planning districts or town limits, and that is a real benefit to the region. We are maturing as an organization; with increased ability to support established companies and entrepreneurs alike. Progress is occurring at a faster pace and I believe the region is well positioned to leap forward. Regional success is more visible to the outside world, and our success is not in one sector. With our blend of companies aligned with university assets good things are going to continue to happen.
The region itself has a draw, and we hit both ends of the scale. New businesses are developing and we are ranked high on the list of best places to retire. I think a region that can support diverse needs wins. I strongly believe that the next five years are going to be exciting to watch. And, the next fifty years are going to be an excellent adventure for our region. I love this region.

RBTC Announces TechNite 2016: People’s Choice Award Finalists

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Each year The People’s Choice Award gives the TechNite audience the opportunity to learn more about up and coming companies in the Roanoke – Blacksburg region and vote for their favorite. The highest votes receives the People’s Choice Award.

If you are attending TechNite 2016 you will have the ability to vote live at the event – all three companies will be present with exhibits and can meet with them during the networking reception.

Congratulations to this year’s People Choice Award Nominees: Follow My Vote, GoJourni, We Evolve Us. Learn more about each company below:

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Company Name: Follow My Vote
Website: https://followmyvote.com/
At Follow My Vote, we are a team of innovators with the mission of using blockchain technology to revolutionize today’s obsolete and vulnerable voting systems.

Follow My Vote began originally as a polling system designed to ensure that elected representatives were truly voting in the interests of their constituents. However, Follow My Vote soon entered into a joint venture with BitShares; effectively shifting its focus to the development of a verifiable online voting platform secured with the BitShares blockchain technology. In order to ensure the success of the venture, Follow My Vote moved from their previous location with NuSpark into a shared space in Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center.

Since then, Follow My Vote has focused on product and business development and has forged ties with election officials and voting organizations around the globe. In late 2014, Follow My Vote joined the California Association of Voting Officials (CAVO), an organization which has been a critical proponent of the open-source voting movement for over a decade. Follow My Vote also completed a proof of concept, which has been successfully demonstrated at several events.

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Company Name: GoJourni
Website: http://www.gojourni.com
GoJourni exists to show people it is possible to alter one’s reality. We bring people together who are geographically separated, reconfigure mental models, and allow you to pick your own adventure through traversing 360° video in virtual reality. We believe you are the creator of your own universe and wish to engender a sense of wonder, amazement, and excitement towards life.

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Company Name: We Evolve Us
Website: https://weevolveus.com
We are a team of developers, designers, engineers, and content creators. WeEvolveUs.com is what we spend our time building. The platform itself is made up of 3 main components:

  • A cloud platform for project management and organization. There are similar tools in the corporate world that have been around for a long time, but for some reason no one has offered these services to the general public.
  • A social sharing site for raising awareness about great ideas being built. We break everything down into locations you can quickly jump between to see what’s happening in your local city or across the entire globe.
  • A crowd-sourcing site for finding the things you need to implement your ideas. We want to help encourage the sharing economy that’s emerging and help take it to the next level. Crowd-souring not just funding for your ideas, but also the people with specific knowledge, skills, or tools you need.


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 Webmail.us. Webmail.us 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.

Take Five with James Rancourt, Founder and CEO, Polymer Solutions

Take Five is an ongoing RBTC question and answer series where we glean insights from local CEOs and technology leaders in the Roanoke-Blacksburg area.

We recently talked with James Rancourt, Founder and CEO of Polymer Solutions. James “Jim” Rancourt is a Massachusetts native who received his B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Lowell. After gaining industry experience he relocated to Blacksburg, Virginia where he earned his Ph.D. in Polymer Chemistry from Virginia Tech. He finished his Ph.D. while simultaneously starting Polymer Solutions Incorporated (PSI) in 1987.

Jim has grown PSI through complimenting his passion for helping others with his love of analytical chemistry. He has built a team of brilliant scientists and support staff which, coupled with the practice of great science, has resulted in PSI becoming the premier independent testing lab for plastics, polymers, rubbery, and metallic materials.

PSI serves companies in a broad range of market segments including the Medical, Pharmaceutical, Packaging, and Consumer Product industries. PSI’s clients range from the largest companies to small and promising innovative startups. Jim is recognized as an authority in his field and is frequently called on to provide expert testimony for a myriad of litigated matters involving manufacturing defects, design defects, misappropriation of trade secrets, failure analysis investigations, and patent infringement. He has given over 55 presentations, holds 7 United States patents, and has been published over 60 times.

Jim was also recently inducted into the Virginia Tech Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. You can read an in-depth article about Jim’s background, recent award, and Polymer Solutions here. When Jim isn’t busy at Polymer Solutions he enjoys running, biking, and spending time with his family – especially his grandchildren!

RBTC: What are some of the regional resources that have contributed to your success?

 James Rancourt: Four regional resources come to mind immediately.

First, a great banking relationship with National Bank of Blacksburg.  NBB has been supportive of Polymer Solutions throughout our various growth phases; from being house-based, to being located in several leased facilities within Blacksburg, and most recently with the financing of the construction of our state-of-the-art laboratory facility in Falling Branch Corporate Park in Christiansburg.  With NBB and our other banking partners I have always operated on the basis of full disclosure, preemptively letting them know how the business was doing.  Through the years I have heard horror stories from many businesses regarding their banking relationships.  I view banks as a critical supplier to my business.

Second, the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, Polymer Solution’s first real home.  We were a very early tenant in the VTCRC and located our first laboratory and office in the third building of the VTCRC.  The VTCRC provided critical resources and we immediately had real business neighbors.  The VTCRC also has always had great cycling and running opportunities, a trail through the woods, and was a great place for my children to visit and explore.

Third is the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council.  The RBTC has contributed to our success over the years by providing programs with relevant content, peers with specialized experience, and events for networking.  It has always been pretty easy to get experienced insights from one of the other members.

Fourth, the Montgomery County Economic Development Authority and the Town of Christiansburg have contributed to the success of Polymer Solutions.  From my perspective, both organizations are refreshingly relevant and tangibly “pro business.”  The EDA and the Town of Christiansburg were vital to the success of my recent construction project, created no obstacles to our progress, and offered valuable assistance and prompt responses to my many questions.

Of course, there are many other organizations and resources who have contributed to our success in addition to these specifically named.

RBTC: If you could give one piece of advice to a fellow entrepreneur, what would it be? 

James Rancourt: I think it is critical for an entrepreneur to step out of their business for periods of time as a part of their growth strategy.  “Stepping out” can be for an hour or two a week, or a few days a month.  I believe this needs to be planned because the demands on entrepreneurial endeavors is consuming of all resources; time, energy, finances, and potentially even relationships.  It can be addicting and even a bit of maladaptively fulfilling to “work all the time.”  Participating in RBTC events was my first proactive step toward getting outside of my business for some new insights and perspectives, to meet people, and to find out what else was going on in the world.  I tell people that I waited far too long to take this simple first step.  There is an appropriate time to have one’s “nose to the grind stone” but I have learned it should not be all the time.  With regard to “stepping out of the business” I took this to a bit of an extreme this past year by embarking on a CEO sabbatical.  I was completely detached from work for 50 days; not running or looking at financial reports, not dealing with timesheets and other administrative functions, not checking emails, and not interacting with clients.  It was a huge break from the daily grind, offered bigger than usual growth opportunities for several of my key staff, and transformed how I now work in my nearly 30 year old company.  Right here, right now, I challenge the reader to plan periods of time to step out of the business for an hour our two a week or a few days a month.  If you have been running a business for more than 10 years with virtually no break, consider a sabbatical as a way to gain new energy, focus, and insights.

RBTC: What is one lesson you have learned over time that has made an impact on your business’ day-to-day operations? 

James Rancourt: In my business I have tried to focus on excellence, not perfection. This became easier to do as I saw the results of this change in mindset. It is much easier to delegate tasks and business functions when the expectation of performance is topped out at excellence.  In business, the amount of time and money available to advance projects is usually in the realm of an excellent solution more so than a perfect solution.  It is a risk to most businesses for a mindset of perfection to prevail.  Of course, the level of excellence needs to be balanced with risk.

RBTC: What makes the Roanoke-Blacksburg region such a good fit for your company?

James Rancourt: I moved to Blacksburg in 1983 “for a few years” to attend graduate school at Virginia Tech.  As I was nearing the completion of my degree I did the normal round of interviews across the country.  There was no other place that I visited that had the characteristics that I had come to appreciate in our region.  A significant factor in me starting Polymer Solutions was simply to stay in this area.  The Roanoke-Blacksburg region had specific characteristics that were a good fit for my company.  In the early years, the ability to collaborate with researchers at Virginia Tech and to purchase analytical services were critical to the success of my company.  The VTCRC created a great environment for my business by providing a lot of critical infrastructure that at the time I did not have the time, money, or skill to have implemented on my own.

RBTC: How would you like to see the Roanoke-Blacksburg region develop over the next 5 years?

James Rancourt: I would like to see the Roanoke-Blacksburg region to find its unique and collective “voice.”  If we do a great job understanding all of the aspects about the Roanoke-Blacksburg region that are unique to this region, all the strengths and weakness, the natural environment, the collection of businesses, and the people who make up this region, our region should prosper.  If we do this really well, perhaps the Roanoke-Blacksburg region will be a leader and set trends that others will want to emulate.

The other characteristic of the Roanoke-Blacksburg region is the level of connectedness.  There are significant differences between Roanoke and Blacksburg.  A clear understanding of the “features and benefits” of both communities may foster a stronger message to others.