Building the Wireless Valley
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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
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
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
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,"
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,"
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.