Roanoke Economic Development Authority invests in entrepreneurship training for 3rd startup class
Members of the RAMP business accelerator’s third cohort will receive a world-class education in entrepreneurial development this June, thanks to the continued support of the City of Roanoke’s Economic Development Authority (EDA).
The EDA has pledged $100,000 to the Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP). Most of those funds have already been distributed, and have been used to help establish the program and ensure its success.
Linda Frith, who serves as chair of the EDA, said the authority’s support of RAMP furthers the EDA’s mission, which is to support small businesses in the region as they develop.
“Our primary focus is economic development,” Frith said. “(This) promotes economic development.”
RAMP, launched in 2017, selects five to eight science, technology, engineering, math and health (STEM-H) early-stage companies on an annual basis. The program then provides training and mentorship opportunities for leaders of each participating company. Cohort members learn how to test product viability and marketability before selling to the general public.
By contributing to RAMP, Roanoke Economic Development Specialist and EDA liaison Sean Adkins said the authority hopes to support budding entrepreneurs at secondary educational institutions in the region, like Virginia Tech and Virginia Western Community College. Cohort members do not have to be attendees or recent graduates at a university, but the program welcomes students who have developed potentially marketable products through their research.
“We were seeing students graduate and create new companies. We wanted to harness it,” Adkins said. “We want to keep them here and help them grow their companies.”
EDA support has allowed RAMP to hire skilled Virginia Western Community College adjunct instructors who develop and provide entrepreneurship training to the startup cohorts. Mike Abbott and Lisa Garcia, both of whom are internationally renowned business educators based in Blacksburg, were chosen to lead the program’s eight-week intensive course in 2018. They will be filling the same role for 2019’s cohort when that group of companies starts the program in June.
In addition to teaching entrepreneurial development, Garcia and Abbott lead National Science Foundation I-Corps courses at Virginia Tech. They frequently work outside the region; Garcia’s work has taken her to countries such as Bahrain and South Korea, while Abbott has worked with Fortune 500 companies and several federal agencies.
“Our focus is not just on entrepreneurship training, but also training in innovation. Those are distinctly different,” Abbott said. “In many ways, innovation is much more difficult and confounding.”
Both Garcia and Abbott said they decided to partner with RAMP for a second year because they are committed to economic growth in Southwest Virginia. By teaching what they’ve learned during their careers spent advising high-level companies, Abbott said he and Garcia are hoping to spread knowledge that is normally only privy to larger, more established organizations.
“What they’re getting is the experience that we’ve built from working with multinational companies,” Abbott said. “(We’re) bringing that knowledge base back here to the accelerator community in Roanoke.”
Without the EDA’s support, RAMP Director Mary Miller said that Garcia and Abbott’s participation in the program would not have been possible.
“The money that they provide enables us to hire two of the best leaders in this kind of a curriculum in the nation,” Miller said. “These are two incredibly accomplished individuals.”
The EDA’s funds have also been used to enhance the working environment shared by members of RAMP’s cohorts. Each company selected by RAMP is allowed to operate its business rent-free out of the historic Gill Memorial Building on South Jefferson Street in downtown Roanoke for a full year. They work out of space that has been newly renovated by the City of Roanoke, which drew on a state grant and also leased overall RAMP operations to Virginia Western Community College.
The colorfully modern office space, coupled with the ability to hire Abbott and Garcia, has made it easier for RAMP to grow during its first critical years, Miller said.
“It’s a rare occasion when you can make it all work,” she said.
Roanoke’s EDA was formed in 1968 by city council. The group, comprised of seven members, plays a crucial role in developing the region’s economy, Adkins said. Each person serving on the EDA is selected by city council, but decisions are made independently of council members.
“With Virginia being a Dillon Rule state, government entities are prohibited from giving direct incentives to businesses or companies,” Adkins said. “So they need to have a third party or an authority of some kind that serves as a bridge.”
In addition to supporting programs like RAMP, the EDA provides a number of grants and incentives to qualified small businesses throughout the area. One of the most popular programs, Adkins said, is the Enterprise Zone Facade Grant. That grant rewards downtown business owners who plan to revitalize the outside of their stores by reimbursing them for a third of their costs, up to $25,000.
“It’s a great program that the EDA takes a lot of pride in because it’s pretty much transformed downtown,” Adkins said. “Most of Market Square and Market Street has been a recipient of the facade program.”
Rob Ledger, who serves as manager over Roanoke’s Economic Development Department, said the city is grateful for the EDA’s help in growing the region’s economy. The city is confident that the EDA will continue to support business development in the city, both through programs like the facade grant and through accelerators like RAMP.
“(The) EDA has been on the forefront of a lot of these kinds of projects,” he said. “We can’t do it alone, and the EDA is a great member of the city to help fund these kinds of initiatives. We’re very fortunate to have such an active and willing participant in the EDA.”