Innovative company creating a ripple effect in SWVA’s workforce

Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce – A series brought to you by United Way of Southwest Virginia

Karen Sorber and her husband Kelly Rock started Micronic Technologies in 2008. The story about how

the company began is just as interesting as what the company does.

Sorber said, “In 2007, a year prior to me marrying my husband, I was in Peru on a humanitarian visit. I

saw these young children that lived without water, and the impact of that on their lives and their health.

I came away committed that one day I would be able to do something to help people in Peru and Africa

get water. Then, Kelly and I reconnected through a mutual friend. I mentioned my idea about providing

water to them, and he said he had an idea about how to clean water.”

A year later, they were married and began a start-up company, Micronic Technologies, both determined

to make a lasting impact on the world by creating a technology that could clean water from any source.

Though Micronic is a start-up, Karen Sorber and Kelly Rock are all but inexperienced.

Karen Sorber is the Chief Executive Officer of Micronic Technologies. She projects authority, leads with

charisma, confidence, and relentless determination. She has more than 35 years of experience in

building and leading private and federal organizations. She has delivered studies and assessments in

policy, management, and the technical aspects of federal acquisition.

Kelly Rock is her husband, the Chief Technology Officer, and the inventor of Micronic’s innovative

technology, MicroEVAP™. Rock is a quiet, intellectual creative with an unrelenting imagination. He

previously invented 21 patented automotive, medical, and water technologies, and now holds five

patents, which he has assigned to Micronic.

Together, with their growing team, they’ve built a company. “Did I think it was going to take 8 years and

almost 5 million dollars to even get to where we are?” Sorber said. “No, I didn’t.” She also didn’t think

they’d end up in Southwest Virginia.

In the late 2000s, Sorber was in an entrepreneurial development program with the Northern Virginia

Technology Council. Through connection after connection, she was introduced to the support available

for this type of innovation and this type of start-up in Southwest Virginia. She was introduced to

supportive county leaders. She was introduced to strong economic development officials. She was

introduced to a college willing to share its research and development resources. She applied for multiple

grant opportunities, and in 2013 and 2014, because of new grant funding amounting to over $3 million

from UVa-Wise, the VA Tobacco Commission, the US Department of the Navy, and the US Department

of Agriculture, Micronic Technologies relocated to Wise, VA.

MicroEVAP™, the patented water purification technology created by Micronic, is basically a tornado that

separates water from contaminants via evaporation, compression, and condensation – cleaning it from

any source at less cost, more efficiently, and more effectively than any other technology on the market.

“It is really about trying to bring water to people, ultimately,” said Sorber. What she could never have

predicted was that Micronic’s innovative technology would bring the people of Southwest Virginia more

than clean water. It would bring hope to an entire region.

She knows that the coal industry’s economic decline has displaced a lot of workers. After moving to

Southwest Virginia, she realized her husband’s invention could have even more impact. “We could put

coal miners back to work,” she said. “They’re not just older guys, you know. Some are in their 30s, 40s,

and 50s, and they have skills that would transfer to another industry. The miners are used to being

outside, they’re used to working with heavy equipment. They could cultivate the rare earth elements

from the acid mine drainage brine using our technology. We can license our technology and they could

make a living on it, and they could solve a problem – solve a lot of problems.”

She brings hope with her ideas to help the coal miners once Micronic’s technology is developed, and she

also brings hope to members of the current workforce. Since moving to Southwest Virginia, Micronic

Technologies has hired almost a dozen people to help during the R&D process, creating jobs for

employees who may have had to find employment outside of the region otherwise.

Now, she is bringing hope to the workforce of tomorrow. Micronic’s partnership with UVa-Wise allows

faculty and students to be involved in almost every step along the way, including conducting water

quality testing, creating simulations, and collecting data – giving students hands-on experience even

before they graduate college. As of now, she has hired five individuals that started as interns at

Micronic, including Brianna Stallard, a graduate of UVa-Wise who Sorber says now plays a huge role in

the company’s day-to- day operations.

Brianna Stallard, the Operations Coordinator for Micronics, said, “I wanted to stay in Southwest Virginia

after graduating college. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to find a job here in my field, so I started

working in retail after I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Health and PE from UVa-Wise. When I was

working on my Masters in Environmental Health, I sent out emails to different environmental companies

trying to get an internship and experience. I sent Micronic an email one day, got an interview, started as

an intern, and after three months, I had a full-time job. Now, almost three years later, here I am dealing

with just about every aspect of the company – I mean every little thing – and I love it.”

Sorber has created a company culture where everyone should be heard from and the traditional

hierarchy pyramid structure has turned more into a flat, collaborative environment, which is supported

by a self -directed work team. She has seen the potential in many of the younger members of the

workforce, and continues to guide them to reach their full potential.

Stallard says, “All we ask for when we graduate is for someone to believe in us.” And Sorber believes in

her employees.

Members of the Micronic Technologies team in Wise, VA.

Sorber continues to nurture innovation and invest in Southwest Virginia’s workforce, and she’s not done

yet. It’s not an easy task to develop technology that could put an entire industry back to work or give the

entire world access to clean water. It takes time to research and develop. It takes investments from

companies who believe in their mission. It takes dedicated employees who are okay with not getting

bonuses or raises until the product makes revenue. Micronic incentivizes and rewards the staff as a

team with stock options based on company goals. It takes innovation and strategy to bring the product

to scale. And it takes the support of a community to allow the development of an innovative technology

with the potential to change Southwest Virginia and the world.

Sorber said, “I am starting to get stronger leads into some significant players in the water field, but it is

hard. Once it’s fully developed, we will either license the technology to a number of companies, or we

ultimately plan to exit with an acquisition of the company. When that happens, we will likely continue to

manufacture here. We just won a new tobacco commission grant that would ready us for manufacturing

and sales next year, but we are looking for investors to match that, which is really important. That’s my

next big goal, because once we have investors to match that grant, we will make it into the marketplace

to sell, and will become much more financially stable, shifting out of the R&D environment. Once you

get to market, and you are post revenue, and you are making sales, then it is not hard to get investment

to grow. It is very hard to secure money right now – very, very hard – blood, sweat, and tears. We want

to get to production with this new grant and investor match in the next year or two, and then we want

to scale it to a larger level, because bigger is better in water purification, and we have people wanting to

buy it now.”

Sorber knows that success for the product means success for people she cares about. “This technology

has the potential to change this region and the world. But additionally, and personally, I really want Kelly

to have his day. I want him to see his success – a very strong success of a product going to market. He

has 26 patents and he has seen a lot of development in other companies and had some successes early

on, but this would allow him to take a piece of technology to market that really can help people. Then, I

want to sell the company at some point and give my well-trained employees the rewards that they

deserve financially for what they have done.”

Nationally and internationally, Micronic Technologies recently received a commendation from the

Commonwealth of Virginia, was cited by the White House Water Summit, and won the Open Innovation

Challenge award from Statoil of Norway and General Electric. Locally, Micronic is planning several pilot

projects this year: one in Lee County and one in Wise County to address mine drainage, and two more

pilots in Wise County and at the Virginia Tech agricultural dairy farm to address agricultural runoff.

Next steps for Micronic Technologies include securing match money from investors; developing licensing

agreements with large strategic partners to commercialize MicroEVAP; and establishing relationships

with non-governmental organizations to deploy the technology in developing countries.

The company’s future for preserving water resources is very promising, and so is the company’s future

for preserving another valuable resource – Southwest Virginia’s people. Micronic Technologies has

grabbed the attention of the industry, inspired the local workforce, and currently serves as an example

of a growing innovative business, right here in Southwest Virginia.

Article 2/11. The written “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” series was created by United Way of

Southwest Virginia. The introductory article was released in May 2017, with nine articles to be released

online on the first and third Sundays from May-September, and published in various print publications

across the region. Each of the nine articles will explore current challenges in Southwest Virginia’s

workforce and showcase the valuable members of the workforce in Southwest Virginia. The series will

share the stories of local workers and discuss topics that specifically affect our workforce in Southwest

Virginia such as local livable-wage jobs, local innovation, the value of working at an early age, the

uniqueness of the community college system, and combining passion with skill – just to name a few.

Then, our last article will provide an overview of the actions being taken to bridge the gap between the

worlds of learning and work in our region to strengthen the workforce of tomorrow. To keep up with the

full series of articles, or for more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia’s initiatives to

equip tomorrow’s workforce, visit

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