Software company WillowTree to move headquarters to Albemarle County

Company develops apps for and maintains link to the University despite expansion effort

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The process of redesigning approximately 85,000 square feet of the old mill will take around two years.

Rendering Courtesy WillowTree

WillowTree, Inc. recently announced that it will move its headquarters from downtown Charlottesville to Woolen Mills in Albemarle County. The software company — which has developed apps for the University and the University Health System — will invest approximately $12 million towards the relocation and renovation of the former textile factory building.

The process of redesigning approximately 85,000 square feet of the old mill will take around two years, and the project is estimated to create an additional 200 jobs in Albemarle County. Both Albemarle County and the Commonwealth of Virginia will provide $2 million in funding each towards the project.

“As a homegrown Virginia company, WillowTree’s rapid growth is a strong testament to what technology companies can achieve in the Commonwealth,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said in a statement last week. “We are thrilled WillowTree will remain an integral part of the community, and are confident this innovative company will continue to thrive in its new Albemarle County headquarters.”

WillowTree initially considered multiple locations for its new headquarters, including other counties in Virginia and North Carolina, but ultimately decided on Albemarle County. According to WillowTree CEO Tobias Dengel, the decision was largely driven by the company’s belief that smaller, constantly evolving cities are the future of the technology industry, rather than traditional innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley.

“When we started out, we were trying to be a tech company despite being in Charlottesville, and now we feel that we’re successful exactly because we are in the Charlottesville Albemarle County region,” Dengel said in an interview. “And that’s because this is where people want to live … if we can provide [people] with a great work environment and a great job working for a world class client, then it’s just a great place for them to live and a great place for us to grow.”

Much like the city it chose to host its headquarters, WillowTree has experienced a period of growth, from a startup consisting of three people when founded in 2008 to over 200 full-time employees today. Clients include Regal Cinemas, Fox Sports, Pepsi, Time Warner and Wyndham Hotels, and accolades range from a 2018 Fortune “Great Place to Work” company to a 2017 GlassDoor Employee Choice Award top 50 medium business winner. 

In a recent post published on WillowTree website, Dengel listed the lower cost of living, shorter commutes, close proximity to outdoor activities and opportunities to connect with the environment and local community as some of the main factors that persuaded WillowTree to move to Woolen Mills — an arrangement that will complete the restoration of the Rivanna Trail. 

He also cited a strong school system and access to top students at the University and others in the region — such as Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech — as reasons to remain in the area. Dengel specifically mentioned WillowTree’s consistent commitment to offering jobs to recent University graduates and internships to current students in software development and design, user testing and research, marketing and business development.

“Our goal is to keep growing here in the region, and one of the ways we do that is by expanding our relationship with the University and the students,” Dengel said. “We hire about 30 or 35 students a year and offer about 30 to 35 internships each summer. We will continue … to give students who have an interest in staying in the area jobs after they finish or even internships while they are still here.”

Over the years, the University has worked with WillowTree on a variety of initiatives. In 2010, WillowTree designed the University’s official mobile app, and then helped launch a version for Android users in 2011. The University’s Children’s Hospital app followed in 2014, offering parents access to their child’s medical records, preparatory checklists for doctor’s visits and directions to and throughout the hospital.

The University Health System also experimented with an app created by WillowTree in 2016 as a means of augmenting their Enhanced Recovery After Surgery — or ERAS —  program, which provided patients with a handbook to prepare for surgery and then care for themselves once they returned home after their operation.

“A huge percentage of readmissions is caused by patients not following protocols immediately after surgery,” Dengel said. “This type of app is really effective for helping patients, giving them reminders, etc. to reduce readmittance, which reduces healthcare costs and pain and suffering for the patients as well. It’s been a great project to work with U.Va. on.”

Prior to its involvement with WillowTree, ERAS had already achieved improvements in patient care post-surgery by 2014, reducing patients’ length of stay after surgery by about 2.3 days and costs by $7,129 per patient, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

“We have been able to achieve improvements in reducing length of stay and post-operative complications and readmissions and also an increase in patient satisfaction,” said Bethany Sarosiek, development coordinator for the ERAS Program.

Since the program proved to be successful, Sarosiek and her colleagues received institutional support for collaborating with WillowTree in 2016 to pilot a mobile version of their patient handbook. Today, according to Sarosiek, while many of the program’s patients still prefer the physical handbook, there are those who use the app instead, and ERAS program staff will instruct them in how to use it as a guide during recovery.

“We know that a tech tool is great for our younger population and tech savvy group,” Sarosiek said. “[So] for patients who are interested in using it, we certainly give them the information and walk them through the process.”

The partnership has also extended to the classroom and beyond. This past year, the University offered a J-term course co-taught by WillowTree entitled “AI Design Challenge: The Rise of Bots,” which brought together the Engineering, Architecture and Medical schools. 

The course examined recent progress made in the field of artificial intelligence when it comes to user experience and the increasing potential for integrating these novel capabilities into everyday life. Additionally, Dengel said WillowTree will still look to the University as a major source of new talent.

Dengel said WillowTree hopes to maintain and strengthen its relationship with the University. 

“We obviously work very closely with a number of different schools in terms of recruiting, such as McIntire, Darden and the Engineering School and Design Program … [and] we will continue to expand our relationship with the University,” Dengel said. “That is a big part of our mission and a big driver for our success.”

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