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Special Report
University Entrepreneurship

 March 2000

 

 

Building the Wireless Valley

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Wireless Valley Communications is a spinoff firm with a dual mission: to commercialize wireless technology and to spark an entrepreneurial climate in the region.

Wireless Valley's founders believe they can accomplish both tasks. "We're hoping others will follow our example," said Roger Skidmore, vice president of engineering. "The name 'Wireless Valley' is not an accident. It is a symbol of Silicon Valley, and we hope to generate and create an environment of successful spin-off companies in the area."

Wireless Valley was cofounded in 1998 by Ted Rappaport, a professor and founder of MPRG, and Skidmore (BSCpE '95, MSEE, '97), a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech. "I have wanted my own company since I was 13," Skidmore said. "Rappaport had been involved in a prior spin-off and was concerned about the amount of time, work, and pressure. He originally sparked the idea of the company in me, then I had to convince him we could do it here in Blacksburg," Skidmore said. "He was right: I did not know how much time would be involved."

The company has a solid customer base, five full-time employees, and is seeking an additional five in the coming months. The firm currently markets three products for the wireless industry. The flagship product, SitePlanner™, is based on research that Skidmore did for his master's thesis. It is a software tool to help engineers in planning, deploying, and maintaining wireless communications systems. The tool is primarily for use in buildings, but works for outdoor situations as well.

Two other products, SIRCIM™ and SMIRCIM™ are smaller packages to help wireless communications hardware manufacturers simulate the environment in which their equipment will be used. Using SIRCIM™ and SMIRCIM™, the manufacturers can model their equipment in software before fabricating it in hardware. The initial software tools were developed in the early '90s by graduate students at the department's Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group.

The intellectual property of all three products are owned by Virginia Tech. "We approached VTIP [Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties] and negotiated the rights to the products so that we could commercialize them," Skidmore said. "We have since turned them into commercial products that we will continue to develop and fully support."

Spin-off companies are the most effective way to capitalize on Virginia Tech's intellectual property, Skidmore said. "VTIP manages, controls, and maintains the intellectual property owned by Virginia Tech, but it is not configured to actively market the intellectual property," he said. "They are not in the business of trying to sell the property...They don't have a budget for advertising, and have no budget for maintaining the technology. The problem is that often, the student has gone and the professor has moved to other research, leaving no one to support the invention."

The idea behind Wireless Valley is to foster an environment where students from Virginia Tech have an option of staying in the area and working at a high-tech company - particularly a start-up that provides equity opportunity, he said.

Skidmore said that the venture has received much encouragement and support from the university. John Rocovich, who manages the Bradley/Via Foundation, and VTIP are members of Wireless Valley's advisory board and represent Virginia Tech's interests in Wireless Valley.

Developing the Climate

Wireless Valley is very interested in developing Blacksburg's entrepreneurial climate, according to Susan Keck (BA, '80, MA, '82), who is serving as the firm's director of human resources. "We would like to help create the culture and opportunity that would help the university, area, and the economy," she said.

Such an environment would present many opportunities, and undergraduate students would be among the beneficiaries, she said. "They could co-op right here, instead of going away; they would be able to get involved in projects with local firms; more speakers would be available to classes - we could even get the students involved with some of the businesses for their coursework," she explained.

With greater high-tech employment opportunities nearby, some students would elect to remain in the area after their receiving degrees. In addition, the university would find it easier to recruit faculty members. "Employment opportunities for spouses is a big issue," she acknowledged.

Keck was involved in a Silicon Valley start-up that grew to more than 7,000 employees. She sees no difference in the corporate atmosphere at Wireless Valley than in other start-ups. She does find, however, a difference in the general business climate in the local area. "When we need to use vendors or get third parties involved, there is not the same level of understanding of the urgencies we face," she explained. "Vendors do not seem sensitive to the timing issues in a start-up, many of which are created by so few people doing so many things. Typically start-ups do not have the luxury of being able to plan their logistics in advance."

Another difference is finding potential employees that understand the advantages of joining a start-up. Finding the right people to grow the firm is her greatest challenge. "Of course, it is equally difficult to find people in the Silicon Valley," she said. "There are hundreds of companies all looking for the same people. Often, if you do not make an offer in less than an hour, you miss out on the opportunity to hire that person. Another company has already beaten you to the punch. I'm not finding that same time issue here."

Skidmore agrees that finding highly motivated, highly skilled individuals has been difficult. "I talk to people in California every day who would give their eye teeth and a dime to get equity stock, but that kind of thinking is not as common here," he said. "If we were to pick up Wireless Valley and set it in D.C. or the Silicon Valley, we would be 10 times bigger than we are now. Right now, the mindset of students is to get a degree and go to D.C., California, or Research Triangle Park. It would be great if they would also consider staying here and working in a start-up."

He believes that with a few start-ups, the climate will change. "There is a virtual gold mine in this area. I think only a select few realize that, and most are trying to start their own companies," he said. "It's going to take some local wins to start changing the climate here." He plans to be one of those wins.

 

The Bradley Department

of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Virginia Tech


Last Updated, March 30, 2000
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