Originally posted on the News & Observer online on Dec. 11, 2016.
CHAPEL HILL – The many ways data can help business and society sparked their imagination, says Nick Ghitelman, whose analytics company operates out of the Launch Chapel Hill venture lab.
He and co-founder Anthony Volpe worked at SAS before launching Quantworks last September and joining the accelerator program in January. The benefits of what they do are more valuable than just boosting sales, Ghitelman said, noting that analytics also can improve safety and efficiency and reduce costs.
The long-term goal is to grow jobs and spin out new companies by incubating internal ideas and developing partnerships with early-stage companies, he said.
“We can share your passion for a moment in time to help you build out whatever it is you want to do,” Ghitelman said. “Your passion is going to be what’s going to get you on a TED talk; your passion is going to be what’s going to get you millions of dollars in investment. We want to be a part of that in the way we help you build it.”
Quantworks grew to 13 employees and left Launch in May. When Launch announced it was expanding its West Rosemary Street office, Quantworks came back to wait out the renovations.
It will be one of the first companies to lease space in the 3,700-square-foot co-working lab, located in the former Ram Book and Supply retail store. A large, open floorplan will allow collaboration, events and space for a classroom, Launch program manager Dina Rousset said.
The accelerator program will remain in Launch’s 4,000-square-foot office at 321 W. Rosemary St. It’s been a challenge to fit everyone into those smaller offices, Rousset said, but the change will give each new team its own office and create a co-working space. “Hot desks” also will be available for rent.
“That is the lowest price option; so they have 24-7 access to the building, they can come in and work at whatever desk is available, they have access to reserve the conference rooms,” she said.
Launch takes off
Launch has served 63 startup teams since 2013, generating more than $8.6 million in private investments and grants, $12 million in annual revenues and a 100-plus jobs. Its next group will arrive in January for the 22-week program.
Launch also took over the 1789 Venture Lab on East Franklin Street this year, where UNC students and graduates can explore entrepreneurship and refine their business ideas.
Former Launch entrepreneur Callie Brauel and Stefano Rivera, who previously worked for the Relay Foods startup, help manage the many programs, create new ones and better communicate how the entrepreneurial network can help students, faculty and the public achieve their goals.
“It’s a very small amount of people trying to do a lot of things all at once,” Rivera said. “You have a million ideas, and you have limited resources and manpower and everything that you could want. It’s a fun challenge, but it’s definitely a challenge.”
Brauel said she didn’t know what to do or where to go as a student entrepreneur. One of her challenges now is refining the structure and better communicating with everyone, including the public, what’s available.
It’s “rebranding in a sense,” Brauel said. “By mapping out all of this, we can show which parts of our program (cater) to early-stage venturing or idea generation and which ones are for later-stage ventures, and then which ones are just for developing a mindset as a person.”
While 1789 is free to UNC “members,” Launch startups pay $1,500 for that program. Companies will lease the co-working space, Rousset said.
Launch’s three partners – Chapel Hill, UNC and Orange County – contribute a large amount of funding. UNC’s Office of the Chancellor provides about $165,000 a year, while the county gives $40,000. The town, with a $10,000 contribution from 3 Birds Marketing, also gives $40,000 a year.
The governments’ share will grow by over $30,000 a year when the new space opens. Town and county staff also hold weekly economic development hours and help startups find bigger spaces, she said. Many startups also have benefited from the county’s small business grant and loan programs.
The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership provides administrative help, while investors and potential partners, including Chicago investor Eric Becker, whose sons attended UNC, and former Launch teams, offer critical business connections.
“So those angels out in our community who are looking to invest in startups, we can do that matchmaking,” Rousset said.
Hit the ground
The expansion eases another major hurdle: finding flexible, short-term leases and pre-equipped offices that let entrepreneurs hit the ground running and keep up with a roller-coaster industry.
“We needed more room and with the expansion that this space is undergoing, it’s afforded us to take on a level of space that we’d be hardpressed to find in real time,” Ghitelman said. “We don’t have a dedicated person who’s in charge of trying to find office space, so (we) came back into a community that knows us and that we know, and that can grow with us. It’s a huge thing for a young company to be able to flex initially and pivot.”
Rousset would like to see Launch, 1789 and other programs expand under the same roof over the next five years. The idea for a 100,000 to 150,000 foot entrepreneurial space on Franklin Street has been proposed, and three developers may be in the early stages of creating downtown innovation centers, she said.
Launch’s unique government-university partnership brings more to the table than typical programs, she said.
“By Launch being open to students, faculty, staff, alums of the university, as well as members of the community, it brings a more diverse group of entrepreneurs into the building,” Rousset said. “We’ve had age ranges from high school up to mid-70s, male, female, commercial ventures, social ventures, and it is amazing the connections that are made between the companies, between the entrepreneurs, and how those help each other.”
Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb
Steps to startup
Launch offers multiple opportunities for entrepreneurs, from business idea to functioning startup, including:
- Launch pad/incubator: Venture 1789 serves UNC students and recent alumni. Similar to an incubator, it offers entrepreneurship workshops and programs, and lets students explore early-stage business ideas
- Accelerator: Launch Chapel Hill offers a 22-week, structured program, mentoring and help from an entrepreneur-in-residence. It’s designed to push the business forward. Cost is $1,500, with scholarships available.
- Co-working: A new, leased space next door to Launch; companies still have access to Launch programs and assistance, but it’s not required
Help is available
Local options for entrepreneurs include:
- Launch Chapel Hill: 321 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill. 919-903-8462; email@example.com; or launchchapelhill.com
- 1789 Venture Lab: 173½ E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. firstname.lastname@example.org or 1789venturelab.com
- Midway Business Center: Small business incubator operated by Empowerment Inc., offers affordable office and retail space. 109 N. Graham St., Chapel Hill. 919-967-8779; email@example.com or bit.ly/2hdyWy2
- The Frontier: Located in Research Triangle Park, it offers free work space to anyone, private meeting and conference rooms, and larger offices for lease. 919-549-8181; firstname.lastname@example.org or bit.ly/2a7yhXH
- PFAP: The Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center rents commercial kitchen space and storage to new and existing food businesses at 500 Valley Forge Road, Hillsborough. 919-241-4212; email@example.com; or pfap.virb.com/home
- Midway Community Kitchen: 505 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill. Offers classes, events and commercial kitchen space for local food businesses. Midwaycommunitykitchen@gmail.com or midwaycommunitykitchen.com/.