Launch Chapel Hill Opens Its Doors to Startups
BY ANN JOHNSTON
People assume I live in Durham or Raleigh because that’s where they usually see me. I don’t. I live in Chapel Hill.
I was a UNC-Chapel Hill student when my company was conceptualized. University instructors supported me in the ideation stage of Local-Ventures, our first $8,500 was awarded through a UNC venture competition, and I found our Technical Lead through UNC contacts. But then I needed to leave campus and develop the company.
So I headed to Durham and Raleigh. It was there that I built my network and found mentors. If we were seeking funding, I would go to Durham or Raleigh to find it.
I’m one of many UNC spinout startup founders who could drive from Chapel Hill to American Underground with their eyes closed. Several have been highly successful (think iContact, Quintiles). While UNC does a great job of encouraging and supporting entrepreneurship, when a startup founder leaves the confines of campus, unless she also leaves Chapel Hill, she’s going to be left with few peers and little support. So we head to Durham and Raleigh.
Launch Chapel Hill, the new venture lab on Rosemary Street in downtown Chapel Hill, aims to change this pattern. A ribbon cutting and Open House on Wednesday represented the official welcoming of Launch – and the first 16 startups that will call it home – to the Chapel Hill community.
As a Chapel Hill resident and entrepreneur, I’ve been following the pre-opening Launch chatter and asking questions for almost a year. All this talk sparked hope for a Chapel Hill that included a startup community. But I had healthy skepticism. One venture lab isn’t going to magically transform Chapel Hill. Unless it does.
After attending Launch’s Open House and talking with Jim Kitchen — a key player in the incubator’s development along with Ted Zoller, Chris Mumford, Taylor Smith, and Judith Cone — I’m excited.
Cloudy skies and light rain on Wednesday at Launch’s Open House didn’t deter the crowd. People spilled out of the building into the surrounding parking lot, many of them UNC affiliates, local government representatives, and reporters. It was a sea of damp suits.
Academic administrators, government officials, and lots of coats and ties aren’t necessarily what you’d expect at a venue that houses startups. (At least I didn’t – I showed up in jeans.) But it reflects the investment of those needed to make this work.
Chapel Hill’s greatest existing asset in developing a startup ecosystem is UNC. Perhaps its greatest weakness is the reputation of the town as being anti-business. Since Launch was formed through a partnership among the university, town and county, those with influence in Chapel Hill’s startup future, and with the resources to make it viable, are at the table.
Of course the most critical players are the entrepreneurs. But they’ve been here. They need a reason to stay here.
Over the past several months, I’ve watched HUB Raleigh successfully live up to it’s name as a “hub” for startups in Raleigh – and not just for those that have space there. HUB Raleigh’s approach is evidence that an incubator that’s active in the community can connect dispersed entrepreneurial dots and generate reverberations throughout a city.
Chapel Hill isn’t Raleigh, and it doesn’t want to be, but the convergence point concept still applies. Launch could be that lacking convergence point, and my impression is that this is the plan.
What I know is that that those behind Launch intend to go beyond opening what they have dubbed a “venture lab.” They recognize that in addition to supporting its first 16 startups for up to a year with mentors, training, Kenan Flagler “SWAT teams,” and rent on a sliding scale, Launch should serve as a “beachhead,” as Jim Kitchen says.
On May 15, another incubator called 1789, complete with open and private workspaces and two conference rooms, will open in downtown Chapel Hill. Located on Franklin Street above Four Corners, 1789 is for earlier stage companies founded by UNC students or recent graduates. It’s a “feeder” for Launch.
My favorite part about 1789, and why you probably haven’t heard of it, is that the 3,500 square-foot space will have completed its transformation from bar to incubator in a matter of a few months. There’s more than vision here – there’s the drive to make it happen.
My second favorite part is that rent at 1789 is free.
What about when the Launch ventures grow up? Down the road (yes, this is a horrible pun that I refused to let Joe edit out) new office space will be opening at University Square on West Franklin Street, giving more mature startups a place to grow.
Launch, 1789, and new office space options all within a few blocks of each other in the heart of downtown Chapel Hill. I see the physical structure of an ecosystem forming.
The vision and the ongoing execution make me excited. There’s still the question of whether the real estate, funding, and programs will produce the startup retention and culture. But so far, I’m impressed with it all and intend to spend more of my summer closer to home.