Virginia Velocity Tour showcases local tech startups / by TI


The future of technology and industry isn’t somewhere else. It’s not out in California, in Silicon Valley, or to the north, in New York City or Boston. It’s right here in Virginia.

That’s the pitch behind the Virginia Velocity Tour, a startup showcase that resulted from a partnership between the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based venture developer, Village Capital.

Created by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the tour revolved around a business plan competition that awarded a $25,000 grant from the state to one winning company from each of the five regions involved in the week-long event.

The tour, which started on Sept. 19 in the Roanoke and Blacksburg area, arrived in Northern Virginia on Thursday, Sept. 22, as tech entrepreneurs and companies from around the state converged on Arlington and Herndon.

In addition to providing support for small or new local companies, the goal of the Virginia Velocity Tour was to show off the state as an attractive, exciting place to do business with a bright economic future.

“You see around the country that new businesses are really key to growing the local economy,” Ben Wrobel, Village Capital special projects leader and one of the tour’s main organizers, said. “It’s great when major corporations move into a local area. It’s a very positive thing, but when you have a company that starts in a city like Charlottesville or Fairfax County and goes through the region, hires locally [and] gives back to the community, it’s also an amazing thing.”

The Virginia Velocity Tour passed through five different regions between Sept. 19 and 22, going chronologically from Roanoke/Blacksburg to Richmond, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, and lastly, Charlottesville.

At each of the stops, the tour focused on a particular theme chosen based on that region’s strengths.

For instance, Roanoke/Blacksburg showcased engineering and energy, while Hampton Roads concentrated on the health and biotech industries. Richmond highlighted manufacturing, arts and design, and Charlottesville offered up startups related to food and agriculture.

Northern Virginia centered on cybersecurity and government tech, which have long thrived in the region due to its proximity to D.C. and the abundance of federal agencies, contractors, and military installations.

Loudoun County, for example, has turned into a hub for data centers, hosting more than 60 centers and 3,000 technology companies that bring in up to 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic each day, according to the county’s economic development website.

Wrobel says the entrepreneurial side of Northern Virginia’s economy has picked up in recent years, citing incubator Eastern Foundry and venture capital firm 1776, both based in Arlington’s Crystal City area, as examples.

The startups that entered the Virginia Velocity Tour business pitch competition serve as more evidence that Northern Virginia’s tech scene is thriving.

Local businesses could submit applications for the competition from July through August. A committee then narrowed the field down to six finalists for each region for 30 competitors in total.

According to Wrobel, the committee judged competitors based on their need for financing, the viability of their plan for growth, customer interest and response, and the potential impact that their product or service might have.

The Northern Virginia finalists were Tensor Wrench, which created a data integration tool for security analysts; Eunomic, a cybersecurity startup; SheVirah, which develops software for mobile penetration testing; Hill Top Security Inc., which offers advanced security incident response capabilities; J&F Alliance Group, a mobile application developer that specializes in augmented reality; and SpotMyBus, a real-time GPS system for tracking school buses.

The judges for the business pitch competition include two University of Virginia affiliates and representatives from the venture capital companies Revolution and Amplifier Ventures & TandemNSI.

When selecting the finalists, the judges also considered diversity – that is, the presence of women, racial minorities and other groups underrepresented in the tech industry – as a criterion.

J&F Alliance Group, for instance, is run by Falana Dula-King and JarMarcus King, a husband-and-wife team who also happen to be people of color and Army veterans.

Dula-King developed the idea for J&F Alliance Group after losing her job following a car accident that put her in the emergency room and rendered her barely able to walk. King, who was in Afghanistan at the time of the accident, resigned from his job as program manager on a Pentagon project in order to take care of his wife.

Because they had both worked in the military and as government contractors, they decided to start their own company to provide support services to the government.

According to its website, J&F Alliance Group specifically offers information technology and logistical services, but what makes the company stand out is its interest in augmented reality and virtual reality applications.

Augmented reality essentially integrates computer-generated elements into a real-world environment. The popular mobile game Pokémon Go, where users can “catch” creatures that they encounter while walking around, is the most well-known example of this technology.

“We want to be that hub for augmented reality in the state of Virginia,” King said. “It’s going to be the way of the future. Augmented reality is going to be a technology that’s actually going to help in the job market.”

King says that augmented reality, which J&F Alliance Group is currently focused on as a military training tool, could make it easier for people to learn new skills, and it could enable them to perform complex or dangerous tasks.

In addition to developing this new technology, J&F Alliance Group’s goals include hiring veterans and introducing young people, particularly women and minorities, to the tech industry, according to King.

The startup would use the grant money from the Virginia Velocity Tour business pitch competition to acquire new software and technology, such as the DAQRI Smart Helmet, which is expensive but includes features like thermal imaging that could help J&F Alliance Group with its application development process.

“For us to get one of those helmets and develop an application that can work with it would show our capability,” King said.

While J&F Alliance Group is aimed at commercial and government clients, another company featured in the Northern Virginia segment of the Virginia Velocity Tour is more geared toward the general public.

Herndon natives Shayan and Eman Pahlevani developed the mobile app Hungry as an alternative to fast food and frozen meals for people looking for quick, convenient eating options.

Hungry lets people order freshly-prepared meals from local chefs and have it delivered right to their door.

“The research showed us that chefs and caterers are already selling meals, but the marketplace that connected the foodie with the chef was the missing piece,” Shayan Pahlevani, also known as Shy, said. “What’s really different about Hungry is that you really get to know the chef who’s making your meal, and you get access to really authentic food that you can’t buy yourself.”

When vetting the chefs and caterers who applied to work with Hungry, the Pahlevanis focused on finding people with professional experience and an education in the culinary arts. However, the most important requirements were that their food be healthy and taste delicious.

Hungry is currently in the middle of a soft-launch phase and has gotten more than 500 applicants with about 60 chefs approved to sell, according to Shy Pahlevani.

Pahlevani says he’s excited about Virginia Velocity Tour for the exposure such an event will provide as well as for the opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs.

“We really believe that Virginia is a very pro-business state,” Shy Pahlevani said. “We want to be to be part of this movement for a community where we’re building on the state’s reputation as a technology startup and growing the state’s innovation economy…The state holding events such as the Virginia Velocity Tour and investing in startups is a great way to encourage that innovation and provide for young entrepreneurs such as ourselves.”