Innovators & Disruptors: The 2019 Tech 25

by Editorial

The local entrepreneurs leading the charge on national and global innovations.

In recent years, the Washington metropolitan area has consistently ranked among the nation’s top technology centers and the industry is now a critical component of its economy. The global real estate service Cushman & Wakefield’s most recent “Tech Cities 2.0” annual report ranked it second only to New York in terms of people employed in tech occupations. Forbes has named Washington the number one city for women in tech and in 2018 Jeff Bezos’ Amazon chose Arlington, Va., specifically Crystal City, as the (partial) home of its second headquarters, HQ2. We share the win with Long Island City, Queens, New York. National rankings and Amazon’s HQ2 aside, it is undeniable that this town is full of world-class innovators. Yes, Bezos is included, but so is Marcus Brauchli, a former Washington Post executive editor who uses Washington as his hub while his venture capital firm, North Base Media, invests in emerging media markets in Southeast Asia, India and Mexico. Jay Newton-Small, a former Time Magazine correspondent, has started MemoryWell, a digital platform that helps elders tell their life stories, and as a result are better cared for as they age. Eric Roy founded Hydroviv, a company that creates custom water filters depending on an area’s needs, with his own money in an attempt to help citizens of Flint, Mich. They, and all of the unique individuals and businesses we feature on this year’s Tech 25 list, are true examples of social entrepreneurship. They are making an impact on the world as a whole and it all begins right here in our hometown.

John Ackerly

CEO and Co-Founder, Virtru

In 2012, four years before Russian hackers meddled in our presidential election, Ackerly, a former White House technology expert who helped lead post 9/11 strategy during the Bush administration, and his brother Will, a former National Security Agency engineer, launched Virtru, an email and data encryption tool “to help people take back control of their data.” The technology allows subscribing businesses and individuals to revoke access to Virtru-protected files or email at any time, even after they have been read. Today, more than 5,400 corporate and institutional clients use the service, including the states of Maryland and Virginia, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Fortune 500 companies like Airbus. Virtru recently secured $40 million in Series B funding, led by ICONIQ Strategic Partners.

What’s your advice to entrepreneurs?

“The journey will be two times as hard and three times as expensive as you think, but even the tough times can be rewarding if you are tackling an important mission in a truly differentiated way.”

Jeff Bezos

Founder, Amazon

He’s the world’s richest man ($138 billion as
of this writing), an e-commerce pioneer and the founder and CEO of Amazon, the world’s second most valuable company. Bezos is also founder of aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin (a competitor of Elon Musk’s SpaceX) and the owner of The Washington Post, which he bought for $250 million in 2013 and has since revived and turned into a digital powerhouse. In November, after speculation had stolen local business headlines for months, Bezos announced that Arlington, Va. and Long Island City, Queens would share Amazon’s highly anticipated second headquarters, HQ2. The “win” means 25,000 more jobs in Northern Virginia; a revitalization of Crystal City; and further solidification of the Washington region, the birthplace of America Online and numerous other national and global companies, as one of the country’s pre-eminent tech hubs along with Seattle and Silicon Valley. A shrewd and sought-after investor, Bezos has invested in Twitter, Uber, locally-grown Everfi, and more.

Jim Bankoff

Chairman and CEO, Vox Media

As an executive at AOL in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Bankoff developed and helped lead dozens of the most recognizable brands on the internet including MapQuest, Moviefone, the instant messaging application AIM and the search engine Netscape. He also co-founded celebrity news site In 2008 Bankoff became chairman and CEO of the sports news website SB Nation, which would rebrand as Vox Media, and evolve into a modern media platform with a unique portfolio of sites and networks. Vox Media’s properties now include SB Nation, Eater, The Verge, Vox, Curbed, Recode & Code Conferences, Polygon, Vox Creative, Concert, Vox Entertainment and the Vox Media Podcast Network. The company continues to innovate and expand. In January, it acquired audience engagement platform The Coral Project, which is currently used by more than 30 publishers and 50 newsrooms in 12 countries, including
the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Intercept and New York Magazine. Vox Media also produces many popular podcasts including Recode’s “Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway” and several video series on Facebook, YouTube, CNN, Netflix, and PBS.

Shelly Bell

Founder, Black Girl Ventures

Shelly Bell says she founded Black Girl Ventures (BGV) in response to the lack of equity in available funding for black and brown women entrepreneurs. Her mission is to provide business development support and access to capital to minority women. “Black and brown women founders are underserved and underfunded,” she says. “It’s time to change that.” In just two years, BGV has funded 13 women- led businesses via pitch competitions in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, Austin, Atlanta and Chicago. “We flip the traditional pitch competition model on its head by empowering the audience to vote, ask questions and donate to the winner,” Bell explains. The winner also receives a meeting with an investor and over $10,000 in resources. Bell also serves on Halycon’s advisory committee.

Who should become an entrepreneur?

“Entrepreneurship is the future of work for people who don’t feel included at their current jobs. Investors must take notice of culture to understand the need to invest in women and minorities.”

Marcus Brauchli

Managing Partner and Co-Founder, North Base Media

A former executive editor of The Washington Post, Marcus Brauchli now travels the world searching for potential investments for his venture capital firm, North Base Media. His focus is on fast-growing media markets in Southeast Asia, India and Mexico, where large parts of the population are just getting access to smartphones and broadband. In India, for example, North Base has provided capital to Duta, a company that delivers news and information via the messaging service WhatsApp. Ten million people now use the product every month. For many, it’s the first time they’ve had mobile access to news, sports and entertainment. In Indonesia, North Base invests in IDN Media, which uses technology to deliver news and video to millennials, particularly women. “IDN’s site Popbela tells millions of young, mostly Muslim women things about relationships, beauty and health that they weren’t getting from traditional media,” he says. Brauchli and his co-founder and fellow former journalist Sas?a Vuc?inic? also invest in software companies like content monetization platform Piano and digital-video analytics service OpenSlate.

Timothy Chi

CEO and Co-Founder, WeddingWire

Chi, along with friends Sonny Ganguly, Lee Wang and Jeff Yeh, launched WeddingWire out of Chi’s house in Chevy Chase in 2007. Born out of the now- CEO’s own “frustrating and overwhelming” wedding planning experience, the result was a platform and marketplace that allows engaged couples to plan and execute their wedding digitally —everything from managing the guest list to finding vendors. The service is now used in 15 countries, including the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Mexico, Brazil and India. In September, WeddingWire investors Permira Funds and Spectrum Equity announced the acquisition of XO Group, owner of, for $933 million. They plan is to merge the two companies (while maintaining both brands) to create a leading global wedding player. Chi will stay on as co-CEO.

What’s your recipe for success? “Find great partners. Sonny, Jeff, Lee and I started the company together from my living room. Twelve years later, we still work and sit in the same office together. It’s more than just complementary skill sets. It’s about truly enjoying the journey together, through all the ups and downs, wins and losses and successes and failures.”

Niki Christoff

Senior Vice President, Salesforce

Christoff, a tech industry veteran whose resume boasts stints at Google and Uber (and before that, a job in John McCain’s presidential campaign) was tapped by Salesforce in 2017 to open the company’s first Washington office and lead its federal relations and public affairs efforts. She works with the government to help modernize internet technology and address privacy concerns. Salesforce is a cloud- based customer relationship platform that manages sales, customer service and marketing efforts. It’s used by 150,000 businesses, including 97 Fortune 100 companies, and boasts $10 billion in revenue.

What advice would you give to others interested in a similar career path?” My professional mantra is ‘fortune favors the bold’ and I have not been afraid to pivot into new roles or industries. When it comes to your career, trust your gut.”

Tripp Donnelly

CEO and Founder, REQ

Donnelly’s digital marketing and brand management company just celebrated 10 years in the business with a rebranding of its own (it was formally known as RepEquity) to better align with the expanded range of solutions it offers its roster of global clients. Companies like Amazon, Google’s parent company Alphabet, eBay, PayPal, StubHub, Disney, NAB, and PhRMA look to REQ for online reputation management, advertising strategy, analytics, search engine optimization and customer acquisition. Donnelly began his career in local tech in 2000 as a senior vice president of the e-commerce company InPhonic. He says the landscape has changed significantly since then, adding, “I am energized by the businesses and entrepreneurs who are innovating within the Beltway and the region.” In January, Donnelly announced his company acquired SpeakerBox, an award-winning strategic communications and public relations firm. This was the third acquisition in REQ’s history.

What’s your advice to budding entrepreneurs?

“Surround yourself with smart, passionate people and, in the words of Winston Churchill, never, never, never give up.”

Anthony J. Ferrante

Global Head of Cybersecurity, FTI Consulting

He joined the FBI in 2005 as a special agent and went on to become chief of staff of the FBI’s Cyber Division and then director of Cyber Incident Response at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. There, he coordinated the country’s response to unfolding national and international cybersecurity crises. Today, Ferrante is a sought-after cyber risk management expert and CNN law enforcement analyst. Revelations of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election have provided no shortage of questions or talking points for Ferrante, who was hired by BuzzFeed last year to help verify aspects of the dossier the site had published about President Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.

What is your favorite or most-used app?

“Google News. I like to stay current with events around the world and don’t want to limit myself to just one source. Google News gives me access to a continuous and customizable flow of information from various sources.”

Winston Frazer

CEO and Co-Founder, Danae Prosthetics

“We are the design house for humanity,” says Frazer, whose Baltimore-based company uses 3D printing technology to create custom prosthetic covers for lower limb amputees. Using measurements and a scan or photograph of a patient’s sound leg as reference, his engineers create a cover in unique colors or designs, such as the American flag, but that are symmetrical to the existing leg. Frazer launched the company in 2016 after spending a semester studying abroad in Sa?o Tome? and Pri?ncipe, an island nation off the coast of Africa. There, he noticed that an unusual number of the citizens were amputees. Inspired by their “unshakable will” he decided to use his education in art and technology (he is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art) to help empower amputees in the United States and abroad by allowing them to choose what their artificial legs looked like, and Danae Prosthetics was born.

What’s Next? “We see our company expanding to being a fully innovative 3D printing facility that will allow you to print everything you can dream of with metal, powders and resins.”

Blake Hall

CEO and Co-Founder,

A former U.S. Army platoon leader in Iraq who earned the Bronze Star with Valor, Hall started in 2010 while attending Harvard Business School. The company initially focused on helping the military. “Organizations didn’t have an efficient way to verify military service online to give out discounted or free benefits and services,” he explains. After the National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded a $2.6 million grant in 2012, the company expanded its eligible user base to all Americans and earned a rare federal certification to issue a digital login that works like PayPal but functions like a digital drivers license. Once customers have created an account and verified their identity, they can use the same login across a number of government, healthcare and financial services websites. The company boasts more than 8.5 million users and is adding 20,000 new customers every day. Clients include the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ford, General Motors, Under Armour and the State of California.

Fun fact: “I’m still the number one Google search result for the phrase “muscly entrepreneur.” Thank you Economist magazine! Time to hit the gym.”

Coach Kathy Kemper

CEO and Founder, Institute for Education

Coach Kemper, as she prefers to be called, is a former Georgetown University tennis coach and instructor to they city’s elite. It was out her connections with high-ranking clients in politics that her Institute for Education (IFE) was born. Part nonprofit, part thought salon, the organization celebrates political common ground and the use of technology in government and diplomacy. “We believe everyone needs to understand technology to keep our democracies strong,” Kemper says. Since informally launching 27 years ago (early salons were merely breakfast meetings between her tennis students, like then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, and some of her husband James Valentine’s business colleagues) the group has hosted over 400 speakers, including Supreme Court justices and Nobel laureates. When President Obama’s chief technology officer, Todd Park, became involved in IFE in 2006, the organization took a technological turn and began hosting panel discussions at partnering embassies on topics such as drones, cryptocurrency, robotics and artificial intelligence.

What are you most proud of? “With the help of former U.S. Chief Technology Officers Todd Park and Megan Smith, IFE has partnered with the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering to offer a free coding camp for underrepresented school children.”

Keith Lemer

CEO, WellNet Healthcare

Health insurance plans can be both costly and confusing. Lemer’s WellNet Healthcare aims to lessen the pain for businesses by offering lower- cost, transparent health insurance to companies and their employees. “What many employers don’t realize,” he says, “is that behind the rising health care bills, there are secret hospital deals between these health systems and the insurance companies that squelch competition.” Leveraging specialized software, which Lemer holds a patent on, WellNet has taken out the middle man and assembled a plan that is identical to that of large health insurance companies like Blue Cross, United, Cigna and Aetna—for a fraction of the cost. The company, which was formed over 20 years ago, has offices in Washington, Philadelphia and New York, and employs remote executives around the country. Demand continues to grow. Lemer says WellNet has grown the business by about 40 percent in the past year and is expecting similar results for 2019.

In the simplest of terms, tell us how you bring costs down.

“As health insurance premiums are derived from the cost of medical and prescription claims, just like an expensive fender bender raises auto insurance rates, when you lower the cost of the claims, you lower the cost of the premiums.”

Mike Lincoln

Business Department Chair, Cooley LLP

Lincoln, the global chairman of the business department at the international law firm Cooley LLP, and co-founder of the firm’s first East Coast office, has become many Washington entrepreneurs’ go-to guy (one founder called him a “guru”) when it comes to matters surrounding venture capital, mergers and IPOs. His practice focuses on emerging companies, including those in cybersecurity, fintech, edtech and artificial intelligence. In 2018, Lincoln advised cybersecurity company Tenable on its $288 million initial public offering; helped New Enterprise Associates and Oak Investment Partners with its $50 million financing of e-commerce site; and represented CrowdRise, a company founded by actor Edward Norton, on its recent sale to GoFundMe.

As an attorney, what’s the one piece of advice you would give emerging companies?

“Trust your gut and instincts just as much if not more than you trust numbers and spreadsheets (and, on this point, read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, if you have not already done so).”

Jay Newton-Small

CEO and Founder, MemoryWell

Former Time correspondent Jay Newton-Small, whose last assignment was covering Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, left the magazine to launch MemoryWell, a digital platform for elder storytelling. The idea grew out of her experience with her father, who had Alzheimer’s. When admitting him into a care community, she was asked to fill out a complicated, 20-page questionnaire. She tossed it and, instead, used her journalistic skills to write a story of his life that was used by his caretakers as a bonding exercise and to better understand his experiences. Today, MemoryWell has raised more than $1 million in funding, has more than 650 freelance writers on its rolls and is used in more than 35 assisted living communities in 19 states. Last year, the company launched a paid pilot program with Brookdale Senior Living, the largest provider of senior care in America and this year is starting a pilot program with Alphabet Inc.’s Clover Health.

What advice do you have for elder care entrepreneurs?

“The aging space requires a lot of patience. It’s not the most innovative place. That said, change here is so meaningful when you achieve it. We watch sometimes in awe as our stories form connections and community and draw people out of isolation. Capturing stories that otherwise might be lost to time, recording the threads that make up our common history, is so powerful.”

Roshawnna Novellus

Founder, EnrichHER

EnrichHER is a micro-lending platform helping fuel the growth of women-led businesses by enabling female founders to secure capital in an affordable and non-dilutive way. Loans range from $50,000 to $1 million and are made to pre- screened women-led companies. Novellus’ desire for financial independence began at a young age. She was awarded over $600,000 in scholarships, earned four higher education degrees, including a doctorate in engineering, graduated debt-free and went on to become an oracle of sorts for women looking to pave their own financial paths. Since launching in 2017, EnrichHER now has 17,000 community members and successfully raised a pre-seed round of investment capital. Novellus has been a fellow at both the Halcyon Incubator and Lighthouse Labs in Richmond, Va. and won the Future is Female pitch competition at SXSW.

Words to live by:

“There is no blueprint for success.”

Fig O’Reilly

Datanaut, NASA and Executive Director, Space Apps DC

A 2016 graduate of George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Fig O’Reilly has spent the past year as a NASA datanaut — using her education and coding expertise to engage with the National Air and Space Administration’s open data to, according to NASA, “create innovative new thinking, processes and products.” O’Reilly also visits schools to teach coding to children and launched the #EmpowermentThroughCoding hashtag to show them it’s cool. The social media initiative gained traction in 2018 when O’Reilly was invited to attend NASA’s interplanetary InSight mission launch to Mars in May and partnered with the national organization Girls Who Code to cover the event and take its members behind the scenes as it landed on Mars in November. As the executive director of Space Apps DC, she organized the NASA Space Apps Challenge for our region in October and will do so again this year; the challenge is an international hackathon made up of engineers, technologists, scientists, programmers and other problem solvers who race to create space exploration innovations over the course of a weekend on a global scale.

Fun fact: O’Reilly is also a THE Artist Agency- represented model who has graced the fashion pages of this magazine twice.

Emily Rasowksy

CEO and Founder, Women in Tech Campaign

Rasowsky launched her Women in Tech Campaign five years ago in reaction to a magazine article that insinuated women in technology could not identify themselves as such if they were not scientists and coders. “I felt that the tech world was more than just code,” she says, “and wanted to help women in the industry not only feel proud of their stories but also confident that they have the right skills and strengths to be successful.” Today, her organization supports women in the field by promoting their stories and providing them with strength assessments and workshops to match them with mentors and companies. She does all this around her own “day job” in tech as a customer experience specialist at the energy technology platform Sparkfund.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who feel as if they’re not seeing results? “It doesn’t all need to happen today, this month or even this year. Rome wasn’t built in a day and greatness takes patience. It’s okay to change things, to mess up and to make mistakes.”

Ryan Ross

Chief Innovation Officer, Halcyon

Ross oversees the acclaimed Georgetown-based Halcyon Incubator, which identifies promising early- stage social entrepreneurs from around the world and helps them build scalable and sustainable businesses. Collectively, Halcyon ventures have raised over $56 million in funding, have created over 550 jobs and have affected the lives of close to 700,000 people around the world. Ross is also helping the nonprofit group expand its global impact. This past summer, Halcyon hosted and trained social entrepreneurs from South Korea and an all-female group from Saudi Arabia. “In our city, it’s easy to give in to cynicism,” he says. “But when you see the ideas social entrepreneurs are creating, you realize the future is very bright.”

What advice would you give to early-stage entrepreneurs? “Don’t try to boil the ocean. You have too much to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. Instead of trying to do everything, focus in on a specific pain point your customer has and build from there.”

Eric Roy

Scientific Founder, Hydroviv

Roy, a chemist by training whose career focus was on developing technology that is widely used by the military, government agencies and first responders to detect explosives and chemical weapons, started Hydroviv in 2015 in response to the lead crisis in Flint, Mich. Working out of his apartment in Washington, and using his own money, Roy developed high capacity lead removal water filters and donated them to families and child-centric organizations in need. The experiment evolved into an e-commerce water filter company that customizes and optimizes each product based on the individual customer’s water quality data. That means if your city has higher levels of lead, chromium 6 or arsenic than others, your water filter will address those specific hazards more vigorously. “Other companies mass produce one size fits all products and sells the same thing to everyone,” he says. In continuing with its charitable roots, Hydroviv donates a portion of all purchase to providing water filtration to low-income families.

What should entrepreneurs be cautious of? “Be wary of events where everyone boasts about how great things are. Almost everyone is either overstating their success and status or trying to sell you services.”

Genevieve Ryan

Founder and CEO, Real World Playbook

Upon graduating from law school and starting a new job at an investment bank, Ryan says she realized how underprepared she was for life in the “real world.” When it came to enrolling in a 401k, choosing a health insurance plan or navigating the leasing process, she felt clueless and quickly realized her contemporaries felt the same. Ryan, the daughter of Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan, founded Real World Playbook to close the knowledge gap facing her generation and to help young adults land on their feet in the working world. The company provides “a one-stop shop to navigate adulthood.” Need help figuring out how to sign up for a checking account or start a retirement plan? Don’t know how to register your car? Is renter’s insurance necessary? Real World Playbook’s website has all those answers and more, including a vocabulary guide for terminology related to health, finances and work.

How are you reaching young people? “We recently launched our proprietary ‘Real World Ready’ educational program at colleges across 10 states, which will allow us to reach thousands of students before they graduate! We are continuing to expand to colleges across the country, and are creating
a platform of customized resources and tools
to help young adults navigate their twenties.”

Kara Swisher

Founder and Editor at Large, Recode; Host, “Recode Decode” podcast

Her Twitter profile describes her as the “grumpy lady of tech” and both there and on her Facebook page she offers no-holds-barred thoughts on not just technology news, but politics and other issues of the day. “This guy’s an idiot,” Swisher writes of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in reaction to a news article in December. Other comments about President Trump and conservative commentator Ann Coulter are more strongly worded. The veteran technology business journalist (she has written for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) launched tech news site Recode with friend and colleague Walt Mossberg in 2014 and sold it to Vox Media the following year. Today, she is the site’s editor at large, host of the popular “Recode Decode” podcast (which she also founded), host of the “Revolution” series which airs on MSNBC and an NBC News contributor. What’s in the future? Swisher has said she’d like to run for mayor of San Francisco in 2023.

What is the most important thing we should know about technology right now? “It’s killing us.”

Brett Schulman



The locally-based Mediterranean fast casual restaurant chain CAVA is one of the industry’s biggest success stories. Since launching in Rockville in 2011, the company has shown steady and continued growth and now has outposts in 10 states and the District of Columbia, with more locations to come. In August, CAVA announced it was acquiring Zoe’s Kitchen, another Mediterranean fast casual chain, for $300 million. Despite the expansion, the company remains focused on keeping the product and service consistent, Schulman says. His secret weapon: technology. CAVA uses in-store sensors to know how many people walk through the doors, how long they wait in line, where the choke points are on the food assembly line and how long people sit to eat. (It’s all anonymized data, he promises.) The result: improved service, fresher food and shorter wait times. “We want to use tech to enhance the human experience,” he says, “not replace it.” What’s next? CAVA plans to open a handful of drive- through digital pickup windows next year, where customers can order ahead via the CAVA app and be assured their order is ready before they pull up.

Tony Weaver

Founder, Weird Enough Productions

After mentoring an African-American fourth grader who didn’t feel there were any superheroes representative of him in popular culture, Weaver decided to turn his own love of comics into Weird Enough Productions, a media company that uses diverse content (superhero protagonists are of different races, genders, sexualities and have different world views) to combat media misrepresentation.“ We create graphic novels that inspire everyone to embrace their quirks and think outside of stereotypes,” he says. “Plus, we have a tool for teachers that lets them use our content to teach media literacy.” The nascent company is already getting recognized. In the last year, Weaver won a pitch competition at the Future of Education Technology Conference, made the Forbes “30 Under 30” list and was accepted into the Halcyon Incubator and
the AT&T Aspire Accelerator program.

Should young people wait until they have more work experience before jumping into entrepreneurship? “No. The sooner you get your idea off the ground the better off you’ll be. Entrepreneurship isn’t something you save until you’re in your mid 40s. If you have an idea, start now. You won’t regret it.”

Melinda Wittstock

CEO and Founder, Wings Media and Verifeed

“I have a big mission to catalyze women to lift as they climb,” Wittstock says. “That means mentoring, promoting, buying from and investing in each other.” The founder of Wings Media, a community to advance female entrepreneurship, host of the podcast “Wings Of … Inspired Business” and founder and CEO of social intelligence platform Verifeed, Wittstock says she plans to invest $10 million over the next 10 years in female-run startups. Last year, her podcast was downloaded more than 250,000 times. She also hosts Wings of Success, a training platform featuring 65 high performing women entrepreneurs, many with eight, nine and even 10-figure businesses. Wings Media has evolved into a membership platform with 62 percent month-on-month growth. As for Verifeed, the company powers Wings with its technology and is focused on assuring its clients a Return on AuthenticityTM from personalized social engagement as well as valuation growth and its intelligence is now utilized in the mergers and acquisitions space.

What’s the secret to success? “Success is in your head. If you can visualize it, you can achieve it. Make sure you give yourself quiet time to reflect and take care of yourself; and invest in great coaches and masterminds.”

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