For the first time in a Roanoke-based regional accelerator’s six-year history, two of its fledgling startups are from outside the region it serves.
The Roanoke-based Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program, or RAMP, released its fall 2023 cohort last month. The list includes Oak Bioinformatics LLC of Fairfax and Charlottesville-based Performance Medical Technologies — both from beyond its Southwest and Central Virginia core.
The others are LymphaVibe of Roanoke, Good Foods Group LLC from Dublin, and MacroVation LLC of Fairlawn.
“We really see it as a way to build new partnerships, new relationships across the commonwealth with companies for research and development; for, potentially, clinical trials; and just to open up the opportunities to make the state of Virginia a biotech hub,” said Erin Burcham, president of Verge, the organization that oversees RAMP.
[Disclosure: Verge is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]
One of the two out-of-towners might wind up making Roanoke home. Oak Bioinformatics’ founder and CEO, Ryangguk Kin, moved here for the sessions, which started Sept. 18. Kin gave up his place in Fairfax and is thinking about his next residence.
“Roanoke is a place that has a lot of nature,” he said. “I like camping.”
His company, like the others in this startup group, is centered on life science and biotechnology, Burcham said. RAMP brings in two cohorts per year, with the spring version focusing on technology. RAMP is the only one of Virginia’s multiple business accelerators and incubators that administers a program to nurture life science and biotech, she said.
“We really wanted to be reactive to the state growing in biotech, in addition to our region,” she said.
Burcham added that RAMP didn’t specifically intend for the out-of-town businesses to move here, though she is hopeful for “organic growth” as this region becomes increasingly seen “as a leader in this space.”
RAMP’s access to resources and network connections appealed to Kurt Wassenaar, who with his business partner, Harper Thomas, owns Performance Medical Technologies.
“We have some work we’re doing in Waynesboro and the Staunton area,” Wassenaar said. “We have some connections in Virginia Tech and we have some connections to VCU. It’s really a statewide effort. So one of the things that I’m particularly impressed about is the Roanoke technology group has been able to open its arms a little bit wider to include a lot of us that are looking for these kinds of resources and networks. It’s a real service to the state.”
Company representatives must move to Roanoke for the 12-week program. During that time, according to the organization’s website, RAMP will provide them $20,000 in non-equity funding, free office space with high-speed internet and one-to-one mentoring.
The mentors include Hal Irvin, associate vice president for Health Sciences and Technology Outreach at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC; Aileen Helsel, Carilion Clinic’s innovation director; and Marty Rosendale, recently retired CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, who has recently moved to Botetourt County.
Burcham called them “dynamite leaders in our region.”
Even more support is coming for startups, both before and after the 12 weeks.
The GO Virginia Foundation — which uses state money to foster private-sector growth and job creation — has approved $577,800 for a Verge project called Strengthening Entrepreneurs’ Impact, according to a news release last month. Verge, using that money and $288,990 in non-state money that it has raised, will add more support for early-stage entrepreneurs and will expand what it can do for companies that have already completed the RAMP programs.
Verge is part of GO Virginia Foundation’s Region 2 — the cities of Covington, Lynchburg, Radford, Roanoke and Salem; and Alleghany, Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Botetourt, Campbell, Craig, Floyd, Franklin, Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski and Roanoke counties.
“We’ll now be able to help going from ideation to acquisition,” she said. “There’s a pathway from research to commercialization, to really convert that research into a product or a service. We’re on the verge of getting that pipeline really well oiled, to have the system in place. I really think the future is bright, and I don’t see the well drying up. I don’t think we’ve tapped everybody that’s interested in entrepreneurship. I think it’s the opposite.”
A list of winners
Burcham said that by the time this session has ended, RAMP will have launched 48 businesses. Of the 45 that have already been through the program, 84% remain in business, an improvement over the national average for accelerators, 43%, she said.
“We’ve helped to create 650 jobs in the region and brought in over $15 million in capital to the region, through our startups,” Burcham said.
Fermi Energy, one of RAMP’s 2022 startups, has recently reaped seven-figure government funding in its quest for an electric vehicle battery powered by locally sourced materials including a coal-derivative.
Pulaski-based MOVA, part of the spring 2023 cohort, announced last month that it had raised $2 million in private funding through a friends and family seed round. MOVA is focused on agriculture and carbon capture.
The owners of 2019 cohort member Ticket Spicket, a software platform to distribute high school sports tickets, sold the company to Columbus, Ohio-based HomeTownTix. But they remained in Roanoke to run Ticket Spicket out of a RAMP office downtown, Burcham said.
Three other RAMP grads — nano-sized drug-delivery purveyor Tiny Cargo, veterinary blood-platelet harvester Qentoro and cancer cell-targeting Acomhal Research Inc. — are working with D.C.-based Johnson & Johnson Innovation, also called JLABS, Burcham said. JLABS provides lab space and resources that include industry connections and entrepreneurial programs.
Samy Lamouille, an assistant professor and cancer researcher at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, is Acomhal’s chief executive officer. He founded the company with colleague Robert Gourdie, who also founded Tiny Cargo. Lamouille, native to France, has lived in the U.S. for 19 years, nine of them in Roanoke.
“At that time, it was just very exciting to be a part of something we knew would be growing,” Lamouille said of coming to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “Compared to going to bigger institutions elsewhere in the U.S., we found that this was really right for us. In the back of my mind, I was thinking we have this new research institute, academic, biomedical. We have the clinic just next door, Carilion Clinic. So I really, really thought at that time, OK, I’m going to start a company here.”
Acomhal was the first startup to emerge from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, and in 2017 it was among RAMP’s first group of businesses.
“At that time, what I really needed was of course mentorship, and networking, Lamouille said. “I was still very new in the region. I think RAMP is a really great company to have networking and exposure. This is really like a way you can grow your company and meet investors.”
As Acomhal has continued growing, so has Lamouille’s role at RAMP. He is on its advisory board.
“I’m super excited to see five new companies in health care and bio science joining,” he said.
The new cohort
RAMP is inviting the public to “Meet the Cohort” at 5 p.m. Oct. 12 at The Shenandoah Club in Roanoke. Register via https://www.rbtc.tech/event/.
The following information on the startups comes from RAMP:
Oak Bioinformatics looks to develop software for researchers and consumers to save time, effort and money as they analyze genomic variants. Oak will provide DNA exploration software for popular consumption.
Performance Medical Technologies is a clinical data science and product development company working to use a naturally reoccurring coenzyme that plays an essential role in metabolism, mitochondrial functioning and cellular health.
LymphaVibe is developing wearable solutions tailored for at-home care of lymphedema patients. Its device will utilize motors to provide targeted customized vibrations that mimic techniques used in lymphedema treatment. An app offering personalized treatment options would control it.
Good Foods Group seeks to manufacture such foods as bars, shakes, chews and coffee pods containing conjugated linoleic acid, which helps people maintain weight, build muscle and lose fat. They would replace large and hard-to-swallow capsules.
MacroVation is designing what it calls sustainable, innovative biomaterials, including commodity plastics rendered biodegradable after use; and 3D printable materials derived from seaweed, to manufacture syringes, laboratory equipment, prosthetic foams and more.
“There’s some really strong, strong support systems that we’ve put around this cohort,” Burcham said, “and they’re just excited to continue … the efforts of growing biotech and life science in this region.”