CoLab grew out of an experiment. Several years ago, Roanoke was working to expand its startup and small business network. One of the new initiatives was CityWork Xpo, an annual conference celebrating entrepreneurship and community development. It was local entrepreneur’s Samantha Steidle’s idea to give Roanoke a space for start ups. She had already created the Downtown Business Lounge but wanted something more; so at the 2014 Xpo she partnered with local real estate agent Ed Walker to create CoLab from an old CVS building. CoLab was Steidle’s early, experimental measurement of Roanoke’s entrepreneurial economy. She was looking to address Roanoke’s need for a physical business space with a cultural impact.
Roanoke already had a solid infrastructure of more traditional economic resources for companies; what they needed was a space where young business leadership could connect with the city. Essentially, CoLab was part of an effort to manufacture what occurs naturally in college towns, what many similar Virginia cities already had: a physical location for ideas and innovations. It would serve as the catalyst for a network of relationships throughout the region.
CoLab’s creation was propelled by the driven city manager, Chris Morrill, and a solid network of community colleges which provided early and vocal support. Virginia Western Community college, where Steidel now teaches in the Entrepreneurship Plus program, was instrumental in the space’s beginnings. Once the city recognized that CoLab’s importance lay in its figurative and literal occupation of business space, it flourished to become a voice for entrepreneurs in the Roanoke region. Now, only two years after its creation, it has come full circle: CoLab itself will be hosting the 2016 Xpo in October.
CoLab is a large building, 10,000 square feet, and has a diverse range of spaces available for use. An equally varied range of people passes through its doors every day: remote workers, freelancers, local or regional businesses holding conferences, and, of course, entrepreneurs. The mishmash of business minds inside means that entrepreneurs can swap ideas with each other or learn from visiting companies. This is why something as overlooked as physical space is so important for emerging cities like Roanoke: CoLab is the ground site for the creation of relationships which expand as ideas and connections throughout the community.
A few characteristics make CoLab stand out. It’s a for-profit LLC, privately owned, so they can make its own decisions quickly– there’s no need to waste time and resources dealing with grant money. Because CoLab can move so easily, they are highly responsive to the changing needs of the community. Also, the entire community is able to participate in the space; they host many free events a year which attract members of the public beyond students and businessmen. As to their support for local innovation, CoLab acts as a “storefront for entrepreneurs,” providing them with information about grants, projects, classes, and the like.
Ariel Lev, the director of CoLab since 2014, emphasizes that the people are what makes it a friendly and productive space. It has an open door policy, she says, “so the more people who can use us as a resource, the better for everyone.” Yet at the time of its founding, it was very “forward-looking,” Lev recalls. “People were skeptical that it would be used at all.” It turned out that Walker’s foresight would be accurate; as CoLab’s creation brought Roanoke’s attention to its own small businesses, its growth coincided with the entrepreneurial renaissance developing in Roanoke and throughout Virginia.
The cultural role of CoLab may, in fact, be the most important function it plays in Roanoke. Ed Walker believes that the open minded, risk-friendly atmosphere sponsored by CoLab makes it an incredibly important advocate for entrepreneurs. It is appropriate that the byproduct of an experiment celebrates just that, voicing the importance of innovation and iteration in the business world of Roanoke. As a smaller city, Walker says, it is not competition that will drive Roanoke’s business ecosystem; “the magic happens through cooperation.”
CoLab is firmly facing towards the economic system of the future. The encouraging part for CoLab is that they are only one piece of the state-wide “road map” for entrepreneurs, something that Ariel Lev is proud to emphasize. They are the first stop on the Virginia Velocity Tour and have been a key partner in supporting the Roanoke-Blacksburg visits. “We want our name associated with the tour,” says Ariel, “because CoLab is only one part of a much bigger picture.”
Join CoLab and come celebrate the Roanoke/Blacksburg startup community.
Six Virginia startups will compete for $25,000 this Monday, September 19 at 6pm at the Moss Arts Center in a live pitch competition.