PLEASANT VALLEY — The first satellite built and designed in West Virginia weighs only four pounds, but its significance to the Mountain State weighs a whole lot more.
Dubbed Simulation-to-Flight-1, the satellite was put together at Fairmont’s NASA Katherine Johnson IV&V facility and has been in space for over 140 days. And as TMC Technologies engineer Scott Zemerick, a Beckley native, sat in an office and turned the satellite’s contingency casing over in his hands, watching as the light from the various diagnostic monitors made the solar cells on the casing shine, he seemed in awe of his team’s accomplishment.
“In my career before I came here, I never thought I would get the opportunity to work on an actual aircraft and put it into space,” said Zemerick, the co-lead on the project. “Being from West Virginia, I absolutely love it. To do this type of work in West Virginia is beyond words awesome.”
The physical location of TMC Technologies is a compilation of offices, cubicles and a single conference room built into the back of a car garage. Visitors have to navigate a black-and-white checkered path through shiny, restored Cadillacs to get to company president Wade Linger’s office.
Although the setup is atypical of most tech offices, Linger has spent the last nine years carving out his own little Silicon Valley in the rolling hills of North Central West Virginia.
“Having a background in government contracting software stuff, I started going after some government contracts and started winning them,” Linger said. “We just kept going after them, going down that line on a company that was originally never intended to be that.”
Linger parlayed his experience as an Air Force computer programmer and manager of another tech company he would work at later to branch out on his own in 1996 to form The Manufacturing Company.
Initially, Linger tried to manufacture vehicle interlock devices to prevent drivers from getting under the wheel while intoxicated, but then started going after government contracts.
The Manufacturing Company grew to a point that a Maryland company offered to buy his firm. After six months of resisting, Linger finally agree to sell in early 2005 on the terms that the workers could stay in West Virginia to do the work.
Birth of TMC
As soon as Linger’s noncompete agreement ended in 2010, he reopened TMC, added a “2” to the brand, and focused on government contracting. In its nine years of business, TMC has won contracts with NASA, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Navy and Air Force, in which it develops programming and software to serve each organization’s individual needs and wants.
While the company started with three or four people, it has grown to include around 90 employees today. This, Linger said, has been helped by TMC’s acquisition of Galaxy Global Corp., Create Tank and Mountain State Information System.
“In each case, we take a seed, or some other company that has sort of planted the seed, and we bring them in, combine it with the rest of the capabilities that the company has, and the combination of all these people is the FBI expertise, the NASA expertise and the DoD expertise,” Linger said. “The more of that kind of expertise you have on contracts, the more capable you are when you write these proposals. The bigger you get, the more experience you get, you can hire more people.”
The rapid growth of the small tech company is due, in part, by an “aggressive” recruiting to find experienced people who come from various fields and have specific capabilities.
Linger, Vice President Randy Hefner, and Chief Technical Strategist Jeff Edgell — all native West Virginians — said their diversity of talent makes writing proposals and working on projects easier.
One of the ways TMC has stayed ahead in West Virginia, despite having no patents, is being an “architect of solutions.” The company develops software that can be easily adapted and built upon to the customer they developed it for.
Edgell moves around to the different places TMC employees work — Crane, Indiana and Dahlberg, Virginia — to make sure what they’re doing aligns with the vision of the contractor. But, he’s also ensuring the company is being proactive and staying up to date with technological advances so he can better decide what investments the company should make and in what direction it should go.
“Being in West Virginia, the targets are relatively few, and if you want to grow a company and continue to grow our capabilities, we had to get some work not only in our back yards, but also in other people’s backyards,” Linger said. “The U.S. Department of Defense is probably the biggest company in the world. So, if you are going to grow a company and do big things, you go after the biggest company in the world.”
“We’re Mountaineer strong,” Hefner said. “We have a vested interest in this community, and we want to see this I-79 technology corridor succeed.”
Growing tech in W.Va.
In 1990, the tech infrastructure in the Mountain State didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd and former U.S. Rep. Allan Mollohan really started pushing the development of the “tech corridor” that tech careers began opening up in West Virginia.
Linger said when he first opened the Man Tech office in 1992, and even when he opened the original TMC in 1996, the West Virginian mindset was graduate from high school, go to college, get a degree and leave. Economic diversity hadn’t yet branched out from mineral extraction, so getting people who wanted to go into tech to stay in the state was difficult, if not unheard of.
“They just didn’t believe there would be jobs here, and that they would continue. They believed you had to leave the state for job security,” Linger said. “Now, decades later, there’s been enough success and enough things that have happened and companies like ours that have grown and have not had massive layoffs like other companies have had, it’s much easier. It’s not so hard to convince a West Virginian to stay home.”
Edgell and Hefner are another two such West Virginians who had to leave the state to pursue careers in the field. Upon graduation from West Virginia Wesleyan, Edgell — from Buckhannon — had to move to New Jersey to work in Bell Laboratories while Hefner, a WVU graduate from Lewis County, had to move to State College, Pennsylvania to work on B-2 bombers, then to Huntington before moving back to Fairmont to work at the NASA IV&V facility.
“When I graduated college, I never would have dreamed that the programs I’ve been a part of and the influences I’ve been able to have in national security and the government would have been able to be done in West Virginia,” Edgell said. “It’s been absolutely amazing to be able to spend the majority of my career from West Virginia doing what I love and what I want to do.”
Edgell is an advocate of staying in West Virginia, and he doesn’t believe people think there are opportunities in the Mountain State for these types of careers. Although Edgell and Hefner, due to their high security clearances, are not allowed to talk about the work they do, they think it’s awesome they get to work with some of the most complex technologies in the country.
“I just don’t think people recognize the things that are done here in the state that have impact at the national stage,” Edgell said. “There is work being done that is just hugely significant to national security, to the advancement of science and technology. The cool thing is, we’re a small business making a contribution to that.”
Part of that is the satellite TMC engineers, like Zemerick and Max Spolaor worked on as part of a grant they won for their proposal. Spolaor, an astrophysicist from Italy, moved to Fairmont from Arizona because his wife was in line for a tenured position at WVU and was drawn to TMC because with it came an opportunity to work for NASA.
“You have to have the right company and you have to have the right skill set, and TMC2 brings both of those together,” Zemerick said. “To bring both of those together, you can launch anything.”
“As an American, it’s a good feeling that you know you’re contributing to the safety and the security of the United States,” Edgell said. “I’ve gotten to visit some amazing places and do some amazing things that this West Virginia boy thought he would do growing up, and still being based in West Virginia.”
Edgell has explained to his daughter, who just graduated from college and has interned for TMC, that her degree in software is not the end, but the beginning. Like Edgell, she will have to keep learning and keep evolving at the pace of the changing technology to stay ahead of the curve.
“When I opened the Man Tech office in 1992 and was hiring kids out of WVU, I was trying to convince them to stay in the state and that there are jobs here,” Linger said. “Now, many years later, the children of those original employees are interning for me. That’s a great success if you’re saying come to West Virginia and stop the brain drain, and now you have second generation technology people. I have to say mission accomplished.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done over the years in West Virginia.”