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'Anything We Can Imagine Can Be Built'

Ries, Chopra among panelists at George Mason University's Venture Camp.

Listening to those engaged in Arlington's burgeoning startup culture talk about their increasingly successful seat-of-the-pants lifestyle is like sitting in the crowd at a rock concert, just as the lights go out: Something is about to happen.

And it's not just economic development officials casting the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor as a tech-centric, creative breeding ground for successful companies. Other people are starting to notice.

That breeding ground reflects a cultural stamp, said Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup and one of four speakers Tuesday at George Mason University's Venture Camp.

"They're not just trying to copy Silicon Valley," Ries told Patch. "They're doing their own thing. They're showing that the way of thinking and rigor developed in Silicon Valley applied to other places generates different outcomes."

Ries said that the startup scene in the Washington metro area "has really taken off" and that he was excited to be a part of the "grownup conversation" about such during Mason's Venture Camp.

That conversation, perhaps, is what's most exciting: People who talk about negotiating multimillion dollar deals while wondering if they'll have enough to feed the parking meter tend to smile when they catch others off-guard.

The conversation, Ries said in a brief interview, isn't one that fits neatly with established ideological or political labels. Supporting entrepreneurs means doing so before they start their business, protecting them from the encroachment of big corporations and big government, he said. It means supporting students, immigrants and rank-and-file workers who may have the idea for the Next Big Thing. It means being pro-government and pro-growth.

"This is a new way of doing work," Ries said.

That dovetails nicely into the message of Aneesh Chopra, a fellow panelist at Venture Camp, former U.S. chief technology officer and a candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2013.

Chopra told the crowd of about 150 students, businesspeople and academics Tuesday about a number of changes in the way the federal government is — or will be — doing business, many of them aimed at giving startup companies the ability to compete.

The tide is moving in such a way that this area is ripe for new ideas — and new companies — to develop in the health care, energy and education sectors, he said.

"The intersection of this region's knowledge of the public sector with the passion you see in entrepreneurs will lead to a whole new class of products and services," Chopra told Patch.

The Affordable Care Act, for instance, when implemented in 2014, will reward medical services providers who are efficient and keep costs down, he said. 

The Virginia Hospital Center ranks among the lowest in the re-admission of patients, he said. Hospital patients who must be readmitted within a certain timeframe following their initial visit are a tremendous cost the system — and therefore everyone who pays into it. But federal reimbursements at this point are the same to high-performing and low-performing hospitals.

The Affordable Care Act changes the payment model so that hospitals like Arlington's will be rewarded for its low readmission rate, Chopra said. And it creates the environment for new startups, new companies, new products and new services to help lower-performing hospitals increase their efficiency, he said.

Similar opportunities await in education and energy, he said, citing the federal Race to the Top and energy efficiency programs.

Ries said everyone has a role to play in changing the local culture to be more amenable to startups. When someone tells you about a great idea they had that failed, tell them, "Congratulations!" he said. When someone tells you they decided to take a boring, high-paying job, give them a disappointed "Oh."

Ries opened the conversation Tuesday with a story about the 1984 movie "Ghostbusters," which he described as a "great entrepreneurial movie" about a handful of professors starting a business "with a radical new technology."

"Anything we can imagine can be built," Ries said.

The next Venture Camp starts at 6 p.m. Nov. 1 and features former Circuit City CEO Alan Wurtzal, who will discuss his book "Good to Great to Gone" and lessons learned from operating in a rapidly changing environment.

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