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Business incubator helping startups navigate uncertainty

At Startup Virginia, a Richmond-based business incubator, expectations were high for 2020. Then, COVID-19 hit. The organization suddenly found itself in the same uncertain environment as the companies it nurtures.

“When COVID-19 hit,” executive director Richard Wintsch (’97) said, “that created a lot of extremely difficult and uncertain situations for not only us, but also our members.”

“A lot of folks, unfortunately, are out of work right now, and some of them have great ideas that we can help grow into businesses.”
Richard Wintsch (’97), executive director, Startup Virginia

Startup Virginia responded by suspending its monthly membership fees. It also created a free virtual resource guide to help small businesses navigate the changing landscape, including securing federal funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. And in June, the incubator received a $50,000 grant from GO Virginia to encourage aspiring entrepreneurs in the Richmond area impacted by the economic downturn to launch their own businesses, particularly in technology and manufacturing.

“We remain committed to executing our mission and supporting our startups during this difficult time,” Wintsch said.

JMU alumni founded two companies currently on Startup Virginia’s roster.

Light the Music, co-founded by Steve Van Dam (’92) and Craig Honeycutt (’92), is reimagining music education. The company’s Visual Music Education programs help children learn and create using the intuitive connection between visuals and sounds. 

Light the Music’s chief operating officer, Andrew Town (’95), and head of sales, Jackie Wilson (’93), are also JMU graduates, and intern Scott Tiernan, a senior industrial design major, is helping with marketing and design.

Bionica Labs, meanwhile, develops wearable medical devices with support from federal government customers. The company’s patented technology monitors tissue oxygenation in the brain in real time. 

“I was able to find a resource where other people in the community also expected to find people like me. It was like a startup magnet.”
Casey Boutwell (’08), Bionica Labs founder and CEO

Founder and CEO Casey Boutwell (’08) was a physics major at JMU who went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in optics from Central Florida University. Boutwell then moved to a research center at North Carolina State that investigated digital health devices. He left Raleigh in August 2018 with three of his co-workers to found Bionica Labs.

Although Wintsch doesn’t share entrepreneurs’ tolerance for risk, he’s passionate about leadership development and building strong communities.

As an executive with the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, Wintsch was introduced to incubators while visiting other cities and talking with local business leaders. When he found out that a team including fellow JMU alumnus Bryan Bostic (’83) planned to launch one in Richmond backed by Capital One, Wintsch was intrigued. He joined Startup Virginia as chief programming officer in 2017.

“As interim director, Bryan did an amazing job leveraging his relationships and setting the stage for the nonprofit to be a success,” Wintsch said.

As executive director, Wintsch believes his main responsibility is “to make sure we have the infrastructure in place” to fulfill Startup Virginia’s mission of helping high-growth startups reach their full potential.

Wintsch said JMU’s culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across disciplines is meeting a need. “The new generation, I think, wants to do a lot more with it and will be demanding of it,” he said. “Fostering innovation and entrepreneurship at a young age can really help with that. … The dream would be, when they’re ready and want to work on their venture full time, they can come to an incubator like Startup Virginia.”

Wintsch speaks during a donor reception at Startup Virginia’s facility in the Shockoe Bottom district of Richmond in fall 2019.
(Photo: Justin Roth)

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