1789 incubator gives UNC students, grads a springboard
By Alexis Nelson — Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL — There’s some new office space open on Franklin Street, and you can use it for whatever you want. The only requirements: you have to be a UNC student or a recent graduate with a business idea.
Though its name (which references the year UNC was founded) remembers the past, 1789 is intent on looking forward and shaping Chapel Hill’s future. The new business incubator opened its doors May 15 and has already welcomed aboard 12 ventures. Its goal is to aid businesses that are just starting out by providing free office and co-working space, mentorship, workshops, networking opportunities and connections to investors.
The opening of 1789 followed the February debut of Launch, a business incubator partially funded by Orange County, the town of Chapel Hill and UNC. Launch caters to more established businesses that are seeking investors. 1789, on the other hand, is interested in assisting ventures that are still in their nascent stages of development.
“We were really pleased with the response to Launch,” says Taylor Smith, who was a founding team member of Launch and is now the community manager of 1789. “We saw that we were getting a lot of pretty mature companies, and we were very conscious of the fact that there needed to be a place for younger ventures as well.”
Unlike Launch, 1789 was encouraged but not directly funded by the town. Instead, the incubator for younger businesses has thus far been privately funded by Jim Kitchen. A local entrepreneur, philanthropist, and a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Kitchen was also a key player in the development of Launch.
1789 pays reduced rent thanks to Linda Chris, who, says Kitchen, is a big advocate of the incubator’s mission. Though the new venture lab has thus far been solely funded by Kitchen, the team is in the process of searching for other fundraising sources.
The group welcomes applications from current UNC students and alumni who have graduated within the last three years. After spending six months to a year with 1789, ventures may choose to graduate to Launch before striking out on their own.
“We’re trying to develop an entrepreneurial pipeline in Chapel Hill,” Smith said. “Before Launch was opened, start-ups didn’t have anywhere to go. Carolina was graduating all these great entrepreneurs and great companies, and they were departing for Raleigh, Durham, New York or Silicon Valley.”
Airy office space
Located above Four Corners on East Franklin Street, 1789’s airy office space overlooks UNC’s campus and the post office. Members have around-the-clock, key-card access to the office, which is mainly composed of open, communal work space. There are also conference rooms and private office spaces – along with a 20-seat “venture bar” for socializing.
Having joined 1789 after hearing about it from a contact at the university, May graduate Ann Johnston likes the space a lot. She founded Local-Ventures, an online service that vets local vendors for businesses, last spring and won UNC’s 2012 JNO Entrepreneurship Award.
“Now that our team has a place to meet, we’ve been able to develop more of a company culture,” Johnston said. “It’s a home base.”
For many young entrepreneurs and students, finding a reliable meeting space is a big challenge. 1789 aims to help these entrepreneurs and their start-ups by providing a convenient, consistently available and uniquely collaborative workspace.
When it comes to measuring each venture’s success, Smith emphasizes that the criteria will be different for different start-ups, depending upon where they were in their process when they first came to 1789.
“Basically it’s about how far you jump while you’re here because everyone will be starting at different points,” he said.
To assist them with those leaps in development, each start-up will be paired with a community mentor. The mentors are professors and entrepreneurs from Chapel Hill who have expertise to share. Smith says that, though they still need more mentors, they’ve been pleased with people’s willingness to help out and advise.
“Most of these entrepreneurs and leaders can remember back to when they were in college or had just graduated and were trying to get started,” Smith said. “They also really appreciate these kids’ hustle and drive.”
1789 and Launch are part of a bigger effort to respond to a pent-up desire for more entrepreneurial resources in Chapel Hill. The town, Smith says, is just getting started in the Triangle entrepreneurship community and has a lot of catching up to do.
“Up to now the assumption has been, if you want to start a business you go to Raleigh or Durham; so hopefully we can help change that narrative a little bit,” Smith said.
The team at 1789 is curious to see what kind of influence the incubator will have on the town and the university. They appreciate having the summer, with its more relaxing atmosphere, to get off the ground. However, they’re also eager to see what changes come with the school year.
“We’re all definitely really excited for school to start, to be able to flip the switch and see what this place can do,” Smith said.