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Shenandoah Valley Rising

By Mike Signer | May 4, 2011 | No Comments

Last night, I was a guest at an event called Tech Nite in Harrisonburg sponsored by the Shenandoah Valley Technology Council (thanks to NDP Steering Committee member Riley Murray for sponsoring and arranging).

Anyone without doubts about whether Virginia — especially rural Virginia — has what it takes to create jobs in the new economy should have been there.  There are eight regional technology councils spread across Virginia.  The councils are non profits that were launched with some state help during the Gilmore administration to help forge connections between innovative companies, universities, capital, and policymakers. The mission statement of the organization proudly states that by “helping technology businesses in the area succeed and grow, the Shenandoah Valley Technology Council is an integral component of the region, helping to bring high-paying technology jobs to the Valley.”

Amid the very impressive spread (fine Virginia wines, an excellent dinner, and an overwhelming dessert table), it was clear they’re onto something in the Valley.  In contrast to a lot of top-down policy — where government “picks winners” — these organizations are horizontal and decentralized.  That means that they work only if their members make them work.

From everything I heard last night, the tech community in the Valley is abuzz with excitement and energy and is creating jobs left and right.  JMU recently created a new engineering department, which is working in concert with other departments, such as the department of integrated science and technology.  These academic centers have an open-door policy to local entrepreneurs and businesses, which routinely work with professors and hire graduates.  It’s becoming an integrated system based on taking Virginia into the future, from a past manufacturing and economic base that’s unfortunately suffered because of globalization.

The purpose of last night’s ceremony was to give awards to a series of companies.  The keynote speaker was Peter Harris, the CEO of a company called Cadence, Inc.  Cadence, based out of Staunton, designs high-quality razors for medical use — such as very precise instruments for special phases of surgery.  Recent business opportunities have been created by the market for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) techniques, and an increasing need for smaller cutting components with razor sharp edges on unique materials.

Cadence began in 1985 as Specialty Blades, a company that helped design high performance, razor sharp custom-made cutting blades.  Today, Cadence includes three divisions — Cadence Science, Incision Tech, and Specialty Blades — that together work are a premier metals manufacturing company.

The company has grown rapidly through innovation and acquisitions, grossing $40 million in revenue last year.  Cadence now has over 200 shareholders.

Harris, a Darden MBA, spoke with passion and humor about the need for leadership and focus when creating an innovation-driven company in a challenging economy.  He said much of Cadence’s success comes from a relentless focus on their mission: “Improving patient outcomes is what we do, and innovation is its lifeblood.”  He emphasized that companies like his do not succeed because they focus solely on making money.  Frequently, Cadence will turn down business opportunities that do not meet the message of improving patient outcomes.

When they do focus on helping a customer with that mission — using their proven competitive advantage in technology and innovation — they find business success as well.  This is an incredible example of a home-grown Virginia company actively creating jobs.  When I did a search on their “Careers” tab for jobs in Staunton, five came up: Machine Operator, Materials Manager, Quality Assurance Manager, Senior Account Manager, and Vice President of Manufacturing.

If you have the skills and training, and want to live in beautiful Staunton and work for a great company — apply!  For the rest of us, we should be taking cues from the nexus of local economic development, R&D and innovation, Virginia’s excellent public colleges and universities, and capital that’s looking to invest in the future, not industries of the past.  And that’s the New Dominion.

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