RAMP Wrap Party – January 4

You are invited to join us as we celebrate the conclusion of our first cohort with a RAMP Wrap Party! Drop by to congratulate the cohort and stick around to network with the companies. Help us wrap up our time with the first RAMP cohort in the New Year!

Date: Thursday, January 4, 2018

Time: 5:30pm – 7:30pm

Location: Gill Memorial Building | 709 S. Jefferson St in Downtown Roanoke

Additional Info: Free street parking is available after 5pm on Jefferson Street, Day Avenue, Bullitt Avenue, and First Street. Paid parking is also available in any of the various lots on Jefferson.

Please RSVP by Tuesday, January 2

RAMP Helps Promising Startups Focus on the Business Side of Doing Business

RAMP held its first “Demo Day” at Virginia Western Community College last week, with each business given a few minutes to share what it’s been doing. The event drew about 120 people from the business community, a mix of professionals involved with RAMP, economic development officials and potential investors from around the state.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that presentation three months ago,” Briganti said afterward, crediting RAMP with helping him hone his business skills and ability to pitch.

“We learned how to stop being just scientists,” he said. “RAMP made us stronger as a business.”

RAMP is unlike other startup programs in the region. It’s a business accelerator designed to provide startups with resources to help them grow and stay in the region. It’s different from incubators, which work with startups in earlier development stages, and co-working spaces, which provide easy-to-access space for startups. RAMP looked for businesses that already had an established plan and were on the cusp of something bigger. The six companies selected for the first cohort were a mixed bag of entrepreneurs. Briganti was the youngest company president to participate. Other participants had been running their business for years. Each had different goals and different needs.

Read the full article at The Roanoke Times website >

Ask the Cohort: Volatia

Volatia is a full-service language service company, providing on-site, over the telephone, and remote video interpretation and translation services in more than 280 languages. Volatia is led by Baraka Kasongo, recently recognized with the Regional Entrepreneur award at RBTC’s TechNite.

What motivated and inspired you to start your company? 

Baraka Kasongo: When my family moved to the United States, we experienced first-hand the language and cultural disparities that exist everywhere in health care, government, education, etc. Language and cultural disparities also exist in smaller situations like, parent-teacher conferences where the parents do not understand the messages being relayed, or when a student does not fully understand what is expected of them in the classroom. I remember taking classes where I did not understand anything but was later expected to take a test on the information. A few years after I learned how to communicate in English I noticed other people experiencing the same challenges and I decided that something needed to be done about it. I never actually planned to start a company and take on the challenge myself. Instead, I saw myself more as a coordinator of resources trying to put together a team that I could pass on to someone else. The challenge is that nobody wanted that kind of responsibility. What started as a volunteer effort, to try to put together local interpreters and translators that could help with the various language disparities, turned into a business model that is really thriving and growing at one of the fastest rates in the country.

What does success look like to you?

Baraka Kasongo: I succeed everyday, because success is not some futuristic goal I have. Success for me is doing the absolute best that I can each and everyday and taking care of people I work with. Success also includes, making sure that I do not neglect the things that are most important to me, which are my spirituality and family. As long as I have meaningful work and contribute to the happiness of the people I work with, I consider myself to have succeeded.

Tell me a little about your team.

Baraka Kasongo: I get excited when I talk about my team because I genuinely love them. They are all great people and each helps Volatia to run and operate smoothly. We have a large team since each of the 280 languages is technically its own division. We have thousands of interpreters across the country and that is how we are able to place people anywhere that they are needed.

What is the biggest challenge your company has had to face so far? How did you overcome it?

Baraka Kasongo: The biggest challenge is hiring the right people and putting them in the right position. As a small business owner, I am used to wearing many hats, which can be dangerous when I expect others to have the desire and ability to do the same. I have found that when an employee is not in a position where they can achieve their maximum performance it really affects every aspect of an organization. The old adage that every link in a chain needs to be strong and tight is very true in the small business world. I try to understand what people actually want out of work. As for overcoming this challenge, I have performance benchmarks so both the individual being hired and the individuals on the team have the opportunity to assess themselves and openly share with me if they think they’re in the right place. By doing so, I hope to create a culture that encourages people to be okay with failure and to be opening to requesting department transfer without fear of being terminated or let go.

Has your company done something exciting recently?

Baraka Kasongo: Absolutely, we do something exciting almost every day. Some of the innovations and new technologies that we have pioneered are truly second to none. We are excited to see where our company is going in the future. 

What advice would you give to those interested in starting a business?

Baraka Kasongo: I would start by asking them to truly define what success, happiness, and fulfillment looks like to them. I would also advise them to spend time with people that have similar definitions in order to ensure it is what they want to do. Running and leading a small business is one of the most rewarding experiences, but it comes with sacrifices. I think one of the reasons businesses fail is because people do not take the time to understand what they are getting themselves into, and they fail to calculate the cost of running a business from familial, spiritual, and personal perspectives. I would ask them to reanalyze what they are truly pursuing and if they are still happy with it, and then I would encourage them to put their full heart into it and it watch it succeed despite the challenges.

Ask the Cohort: Flex Metrics

Flex Metrics by SoftSolutions is led by Jay Foster. The company has been providing real-time production visibility technology for print, packaging, and manufacturing industries for almost 20 years.

What are you working on now/next?

Jay Foster: We are focused upon multi-site, enterprise reporting. This is one of the first significant benefits of the RAMP program in terms of prioritizing our product roadmap. We have realized that our most significant value is provided to large manufacturing firms, many of which have multiple sites. We are now pursuing a Cloud-based Enterprise reporting module to provide real-time visibility across different plant locations.

What is the biggest challenge your company has had to face so far? How did you overcome it?

Jay Foster: Always the biggest challenge is related to people. Having the right people at the right time is always and obstacle. One way to overcome that is by networking, and knowing people in the community has been a huge help as well. The Roanoke community’s ability to find good people has been foundational.

What does success look like to you?

Jay Foster: That’s a good question. Happy customers are by far the number one measure of success for the company. If our customers are happy then I am happy. Number two is win-win relationships. This happens when our customers are gaining more financially from working with us and it is profitable for us to work with our customers as well.

What advice would you give to those interested in starting a business?

Jay Foster: Be careful and proceed with caution. Make sure to understand what your customers need and make sure they are willing and able to pay for it.

What would you say to someone who is thinking about applying to RAMP?

Jay Foster: I think it is a great idea. If you are really ready to grow your business then it will make a big difference. It is important that business owners understand that it is not an incubator, but rather an accelerator.

So you’re working with a mentor, tell me about that experience.

Jay Foster: It has been very good. It is always beneficial to get advice from someone who has been there. We have a very good mentor that gives excellent insights. He sees things we do not see because we are too close to it.

What feedback do you have about the classes RAMP offers?

Jay Foster: I think it provides a good common framework to communicate these core concepts of a business model and formula for scaling up.

Do you have any additional thoughts that you would like to share?

Jay Foster: I am glad that Roanoke is doing this and I am really glad that Virginia Western stepped up to make it happen, specifically Dr. Sandel.

Ask the Cohort: DESA

DESA is a health care analytics and Telehealth company led by Jonathan Briganti, Dr. Anne Brown, Brian Elliott and David Trinkle, MD. They are developing a way for assessments, that are normally done inside a doctor’s office, to be done remotely on a digital medium in order to add data and communication for doctors and physicians to better support the diagnosis of health issues such as dementia, depression, anxiety, etc.

What is the biggest challenge your company has had to face so far? How did you overcome it?

Jonathan Briganti: Our biggest challenge would be that we are not business-centered people. We all came from the science world where we know how to get grants for academic trials that run for several years on end but do not move very fast. When we transitioned to the business world we had to figure out how to adjust to the fast pace style. We had to learn about Patent Protection, forming LLC’s, getting office space, and forming connections. It is an entirely different side of life that we never really considered entering until we had this idea. Once we entered the business world, we had to move very quickly and the RAMP program has been very helpful with moving us in the right direction.

What are you hoping to get out of RAMP?

Dr. Anne Brown: We are hoping to get a more robust business plan and conceptual model for actually selling our product to multiple venues like, larger hospital systems, nursing home systems, school systems, etc. In order to do that we are hoping to get more guidance in what kind of models we need to set up for each of those.

Jonathan Briganti: I think connections are a very big thing as well. We have been very fortunate to have Victor Ianello as a mentor and to have been introduced to some very influential people in the area. It is great having those people that can open doors and help us get our name out there further than we thought was possible.

What do you like about the Roanoke area? Why do you want to be here and grow your company here?

Dr. Anne Brown: I grew up in Roanoke, went to Roanoke College for my undergrad, and attended Virginia Tech for graduate school. I think the area has a lot of potential for growth and many aspects that make the quality of life high. I think it is a great place for us, especially with the ability to tap into undergraduates at Virginia Tech as we grow and need more individuals in the engineering STEM fields. I think there is a great talent pool at Virginia Tech. From what I understand, students also enjoy the area due to the accessibility of nature in a metropolitan setting that still provides an affordability of living.  There is also a lot of movement and growth in the health care field through the Virginia Tech Carilion partnership.

Jonathan Briganti: I have really seen a big push from business owners, especially the ones involved in RAMP, for start ups to grow and succeed. We have had nothing but positive connections in Roanoke. Everyone wants to help us and see us succeed. Everyone we have connected with in Roanoke has been very thoughtful and helpful.

What advice would you give to those interested in starting a business?

Jonathan Briganti: If you have an idea, go for it. When this idea began, I was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech and never thought I would have my own office a year later. We never thought the idea we had for a hackathon last April would last more than that weekend. We all joke that this has been the longest weekend of our lives. If you see a need in the world there is no reason you cannot be the one to solve that issue. Never decide not to pursue a particular field because you think you do not know enough about it, because you can learn.

Has your company done something exciting recently?  

Dr. Anne Brown: We are still exploring all the many channels and usability of this kind of app platform. Pretty much on almost a daily or weekly basis we learn about a different area that is interested or think they could use this kind of product in a certain way. Finding those things out though various market surveys is very interesting and exciting.

Jonathan Briganti: We just finished a beta version of the app so we are able to get focus testers out. The app is not connected with medical records at all, but for the first time we are having people use our app. It is exciting to have it in the hands of individuals out there and get their feedback.

So you’re working with a mentor, tell me about that experience.

Dr. Anne Brown: It is a wonderful experience. We need mentorship and we are fully open to that kind of guidance. I think it would be silly for us to not take the advice of someone who has been there before and has learned from experience, especially when it can help us get over different bumps along the road.

Jonathan Briganti: Coming into this we knew that there are a million things we should do in order for our business to succeed. It has been helpful to talk to someone who is so connected in the community and have them tell us that there are a million things that we can do, but these three things are the most important things to do right now. It has really allowed us to focus down and make a stronger business.

Ask the Cohort: Autonomous Flight Technologies, Inc.

Autonomous Flight Technologies, Inc. (AFT) focuses on the advancement of small commercial aircraft related to the UAV/UAS industry. AFT, led by Josh May, is licensed to use drones for commercial purposes.

What motivated and inspired you to start your company?

Josh May: My father and I had a retail business that we started from scratch, but during those years I always had a fascination for flight. I loved to experiment and design aircraft that fly autonomously. Paul Stoutamire, a long time friend, was already doing some flying. He introduced me to Chris Moody as well. Together, we decided that we should join forces. We got an exemption from the FAA that allowed us to fly legally for commercial purposes. We were one of the first companies in Virginia to do so. It has just taken off since. One of the things we pride ourselves on, as a business, is that we are always on the top of the curve of the technology in the UAS industry. We see that the biggest impact we can have on the United States is in the engineering market so that is where we focus, as a data company for engineers.

What is the biggest challenge your company has had to face so far? How did you overcome it?

Josh May: As with any business, the number one challenge is always the actual logistics of starting the business because it cost money to do so. I’ve personally spent a lot of money that I was saving for retirement, to start this business, and it’s a huge risk. When you are starting a business you are taking that money and throwing it on a craps table and gambling whether or not it is going to pay off. Fortunately, before this I had a business of building aircraft that kind of morphed into Autonomous Flight Technologies. In my previous business I tested my hypothesis, that there was a need for UAV and drones in this country. I knew it was going to be the next tech bubble and it is here now. The hardest part of the business so far was fighting our way to being recognized as the leading drone service provider in Virginia and sustaining it financially. We want to scale as smart as possible and not make the common mistakes that can kill a company. One of the great things about being here working with RAMP is having access to mentorship and connections. Our mentor has scaled many multi-million dollar businesses and having that influence is worth its weight in gold.

What do you like about the Roanoke area? Why do you want to be here and grow your company here?

Josh May: I love Roanoke, especially Roanoke City. I grew up in Salem and it is a great place too. My wife and I ended up buying a house in Roanoke and lived there for about 14 years before moving back to Salem. We love Roanoke and it has come a long way, both in the technology field as well as socially, since we first moved there. Now there is a festival every weekend and something is always going on. Personally, my wife and I miss a lot about Roanoke. We definitely call Roanoke home for our business. Autonomous Flight Technologies is here to stay.

What advice would you give to those interested in starting a business?

Josh May: At first, be prepared to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You have to dive in 100% and you can’t just do it as a hobby. If you are coming to RAMP be prepared to work, because they are going to put your business model to the test. Fortunately for us we have been in business for a few years and we have tested our business model. Paul, Chris, and I explored just about every single way that you can use a UAS aircraft legally in this country. We have narrowed down our business model to where we know that it makes sense for the direction that UAS is going in the United States right now. As the market changes, we stay on top of it. We started in cinematography and it led us to the engineering side and who knows where that will lead us next. It’s just a matter of sticking with it.

Has your company done something exciting recently?

Josh May: Yes, every time we do a new job it is exciting. One of the greatest things about what we do is we find ourselves in situations or places that we would never have had access to. I’m excited every time I come to work. I know this is a cliché and everyone’s heard it a thousand times, but when you’re doing what you love you never work a day in your life. That is just a fact and I love doing what we are doing. I love coming to work, the business side of things, seeing it prosper, and doing the work itself. I would say that no matter how large we get and how high we climb you are going to find all of us founders still involved in some capacity in some of these jobs.


Ask the Cohort: Altede


Altede is a startup company led by Ed Champion, Dr. Anna Champion, and Briana Petruzzi. They are currently in the process of developing their product, which will be a kit to test for gluten and other allergens in food.

Tell me a little about your team.

Ed Champion: I am the president and I have an MBA and marketing background. I have experience writing many complex proposals, mostly to defense firms. I handle the checkbook, the business affairs and take the lead in writing proposals. Anna is my daughter and she has a Ph.D. in biomedical science. She’s the scientific brains behind the outfit and does the creative thinking and how to solve the technical problems. Briana Petruzzi is an associate of Anna’s. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the lab where Anna works at Virginia Tech. She is in the process of writing her dissertation. She is our product manager, so she is more concerned about the physical configuration of what the kit will actually look like, and she helps me with manufacturing. She also does a lot of the lab work with Anna.

What motivated and inspired you to start your company?

Ed Champion: In December of 2014 Anna and I were sitting in a Chinese restaurant waiting for our order to arrive when Anna looked at me and she said something like, “wow, I wish I knew for sure that the egg drop soup had no gluten in it.”. Then she smiled and told me she and Briana thought they knew how to create a product that could test for gluten in food. Being an MBA I’ve always dreamed of beginning a start up, and immediately saw potential to create a business. Due to the experience of trying to modify our kitchen to be gluten-free after Anna developed celiac disease at the age of twelve, I could see that developing a test for gluten in foods would be a big service. If we could figure out a way to do create a product that is easy, fast, and affordable then we could provide that service to people with serious gluten problems.

What does success look like to you?

Ed Champion: It turns out that because of federal budget cuts there is less biological research going on than there was when Anna started her Ph.D. She does not have a job that is worthy of all the work she put into getting her Ph.D. and Briana can see that being a factor in her future as well. Success for me would be that I am able to retire in a couple years, get enough money to buy my dream sailboat, and that Anna and Briana would have a job worthy of their education. Gluten is one of eight major food allergies recognized by the U.S. government, and if we are successful then they could use the same techniques that we used to develop tests for other food allergies. There is potential for this business to continue to grow and be really prosperous. Success for me would also include that we are able to demonstrate this product and produce a company that provides jobs here in this area. We are from Blacksburg, but we really like this area and we want to contribute to its success.

What are you working on now/next?

Ed Champion: Anna and Briana are finalizing the chemistry and configuration of the product and I’m assisting with the mechanical side. We are also performing customer discovery by going out and talking to other people with celiac disease to see how their experiences differ. We are trying to uncover different segments of the market and verify all of our assumptions. I have been meeting with dietitians, people who have celiac disease, people with gluten intolerance, and people who eliminate gluten because they believe it makes them feel better. We are trying to find out how they live and how gluten affects their lives, where our tests fit in, how much they are willing to pay for our product, and whether they will buy it via the Internet. Most people want to remain informed about the business after I talk with them. So, I have begun to accumulate a list of emails and plan to  publish a monthly newsletter about our progress.

What advice would you give to those interested in starting a business?

Ed Champion: I went to the Naval Academy and Robert Heinlein, a famous science fiction novelist, came to speak to the midshipmen. One of the two things I remember about his speech is that the most important thing about writing, is to get started and do it. I would say that starting a business is the same way. It is one thing to think about it, but you have to actually start to do it in order to make it happen. At the same time, I would say once you start analyzing and thinking about it you have to be willing to say, “no, this is not a good idea after all,” but if you don’t start and start seriously putting it together you won’t get there.

So you’re working with a mentor, tell me about that experience.

Ed Champion: We happened to know our mentor before being brought in to RAMP. She is the wife of a local entrepreneur and is taking over her retired husband’s business. We met previously at a poster board session and she invited us to tour her plant in Christiansburg. She brings a totally different perspective to the team and helps us all work together.

Ask the Cohort: Acomhal Research Inc.

Acomhal Research Inc. is a biotech spinout, from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, that is developing treatments for cancer. Dr. Samy Lamouille and Dr. Robert Gourdie, founders of Acomhal Research Inc., are developing a drug, for patients with brain cancer, that targets and kills the cancer cells that are resistant to therapy.

What motivated and inspired you to start your company?

Dr. Samy Lamouille: As a cancer biologist, I always wanted to find new treatments for cancer patients. When you work in translational research, it is of course important to publish basic science discoveries within the scientific community, but testing to see if these discoveries can save lives is also essential. The Biotech industry translates these basic findings and identifies whether any have the potential to become new treatments for patients. When I moved to the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute three years ago, I started working on brain cancer and got very exciting results with this new drug developed by Dr. Robert Gourdie and his laboratory. Our findings drove me to start my own company one year ago with Dr. Gourdie, because I saw the potential of this new drug to help patients with brain cancer.

What does success look like to you?

Dr. Samy Lamouille: If our new treatments can extend patients’ lives, I would feel like I succeeded. I know success can be a long process in my case, but thinking about the patients is what motivates me to succeed.

What are you working on now/next?

Dr. Samy Lamouille: Right now we are seeking for funds and potential investors to initiate clinical trials as these are very expensive steps in translational research. We are also working on developing a way to efficiently deliver our drug into the brain. I’m also starting a new program on colon cancer with Dr. Jennifer Vaughn, an oncologist in the region. We believe that our drug has the potential to treat other types of cancer in addition to brain cancer as it targets a specific population of cancer cells found in tumors.

What do you like about the Roanoke area? Why do you want to be here and grow your company here?

Dr. Samy Lamouille: I came to Roanoke as I saw high potential in this city that was developing so fast. I feel that here I can be part of the region’s growth and make decisions that can influence the development of the city compared to being in a big city where it is harder to have an impact. I also believe there is a strong and supportive community here in Roanoke where you can meet people much faster and that’s very important if you need help to develop your company. Roanoke isn’t too far from other big cities like D.C. so there is potential to collaborate with other companies around the East Coast.

What would you say to someone who is thinking about applying to RAMP?

Dr. Samy Lamouille: I would definitely encourage them to do so. The mentorship, networking, connections, and exposure we get from being part of RAMP are key factors for success personally and for our startup company. The classes we have at RAMP are very useful as we are learning important business tools and insights that have been valuable for the company.


RBTC Announces Selection of First Cohort for RAMP Business Accelerator

Six high-potential startups have been selected to serve in the inaugural cohort at RAMP (Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program), a business accelerator program in downtown Roanoke.The six companies were chosen for their ability to expand and create jobs within the STEM-H field.The program launches June 1, 2017,in the renovated Gill Memorial Building in downtown Roanoke.

The inaugural cohort is comprised of the following:

  • Acomhal Research Inc., a biotech spinout from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI), working on an innovative therapeutic drug to target chemoresistant cancer cells and prevent tumor recurrence in glioblatoma. Acomhal Research Inc. is led by Dr. Samy Lamouille and Dr.Robert Gourdie.
  • Altede, developing easy and affordable tests for gluten and other allergens in food. Altede is led by Ed Champion, Dr. Anna Champion, and Briana Petruzzi.
  • Autonomous Flight Technologies, Inc. (AFT), licensed and credentialed to usedrones for business developing new ways to replace older, slower,and costlier methods. AFT is led by Josh May.
  • DESA, developing screening assessments to more effectively support the diagnosis and monitoring of health issues such as dementia, depression, concussion, PTSD, anxiety, pre-and post-surgery instructions, among others. DESA is led by Jonathan Briganti, Brian Elliot, and Dr. Anne Brown.
  • Flex Metrics by SoftSolutions, providing real-time production visibility technology for print, packaging, and manufacturing industries for almost 20 years. Flex Metrics is led by Jay Foster.
  • Volatia, a full-service language service company, providing on-site, over the telephone, and remote video interpretation and translation services in more than 280 languages. Volatia is led by Baraka Kasongo, recently recognized with the Regional Entrepreneur award at RBTC’s TechNite.

The businesses in the cohort will benefit from structured mentorships between entrepreneurs and experienced individuals in their field, gain access to funding that will get them beyond early stage, and receive business education specifically targeted to scaling technology-based start-ups. “There is so much to celebrate with our first cohort.The companies represent a diverse set of industries and are in various stages of their business development,” said RAMP director Mary Miller. “This program is designed to provide the tools and support to move the needle for each one, and I expect to see just that. I couldn’t be more pleased to just have a small part in all of this.” Achomal Research Inc., Altede, AFT, DESA, and Volatia will all co-locate on the third floor where they will have access to a 1Gig fiber network made available through a generous partnership with Cox Business. Additionally, the space, furniture, and utilities are provided to these companies free of charge. Flex Metrics by SoftSolutions, in addition to participating in the inaugural cohort, will be the Gill Memorial Building’s anchor tenant and will be located on the first floor. Support for RAMP comes from a broad public/private partnership that draws on leaders in higher education, government, and the region’s growing technology community. RAMP founding partners include:

  • The City of Roanoke, which owns the building and won a $600,000 state grant to renovate the Gill building as an accelerator.
  • Virginia Western Community College, which will provide business education classes and faculty support.
  • The Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, which pays for the Director and will lead the accelerator’s mentorship and networking initiatives.

An open house to meet the inaugural cohort will be held on Monday, June 5, 2017, at 5pm at the Gill Memorial Building(709 S. Jefferson Street, Roanoke, VA 24011).

Media Contact: Robert McAden President & CEO, Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council (540) 443-9232 | robert@rbtc.tech

RAMP Open House – March 16

The City of Roanoke, Virginia Western Community College (VWCC), and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council (RBTC) cordially invite you to join us for an Open House as we mark the launch of RAMP, the Roanoke-Blacksburg Accelerator.

RAMP is the home to entrepreneurial programming provided by VWCC, a new regional business accelerator, the RBTC and other entities and programming that support our region’s technology start-up community.

The Open House will be held at RAMP, located at 709 S. Jefferson Street in Downtown Roanoke on Thursday, March 16 from 5:30 – 7:30 PM.

Parking is available on the street for free after 5pm on Jefferson Street, Day Avenue, Bullitt Avenue, First Street or in the various paid lots on Jefferson.

Please RSVP by Tuesday, March 14, 2017.

Have questions? Contact: Heather Fay, heather@rbtc.tech or (540) 443-9232 ext 1.