Just two blocks off the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, Launch Chapel Hill
serves as the unofficial headquarters for startup activity in Chapel Hill and Orange County.
In recent years, UNC-Chapel Hill has committed to making entrepreneurship one of the school’s cornerstones. The ever-growing Entrepreneurship Minor is now enrolling more than 150 students per year; the Carolina Challenge continues to develop as a premier year-long business competition, and a $100 million gift to the School of Pharmacy was used to create the Eshelman Institute for Innovation earlier this year. (Here's ExitEvent's overview of UNC entrepreneurship activities)
Part of that commitment to entrepreneurship came in the form of Launch Chapel Hill, a partnership between the university, the Town of Chapel Hill and a private donor. Opened in January 2013, the 3500-square-foot office space hosts a mix of UNC students and faculty and local residents, all looking for help growing and scaling their startups.
Since opening its doors, Launch has graduated 42 companies from the accelerator, with seven startups participating in the 22-week program now.
Launch Chapel Hill By the Numbers
7 — Companies currently going through Launch Chapel Hill’s 22-week accelerator program
11 — Launch accelerator program alumni that are continuing to work out of the space as “tenant ventures”
49 — Total companies that have gone through the 22-week accelerator program since January 2013
37 — Companies still in operation
33% — Percent of the companies that won Carolina Challenge honors in 2015, spanning all three competition categories
94 — Total number of employees (full and part-time) hired by companies that have gone through Launch Chapel Hill program
$3.685M — Total funding raised by Launch startups through December 2014
*24 of 34 teams served through December 2014 responded to survey
Creating the launch pad
Launch’s calling card is the accelerator, which has acted as the springboard for companies like Keona Health, Impulsonic, Freedom and Tom & Jenny’s as they launch products, hire staff, raise money and move into larger spaces.
Dina Rousset —a serial entrepreneur who now works as associate director for UNC’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies —serves as program manager of Launch and oversees the progress of its ventures.
“(The ventures) work with their entrepreneurs-in-residence and set goals for the time that they’re here,” Rousset says. “During that time,we heavily lay on mentorship resources and resource partners. We’re trying to hold their hand and pull them along.”
Three of the seven ventures in the cohort that started in July are student-led companies that won funding in the Carolina Challenge. Rousset says that all seven have made significant progress since beginning the program.
“They’re all in the process of trying to scale, and at the same time working to raise funding to help them get there,” she says. She noted that every company has raised funds, and three have applied for Orange County small business grants. The cohort is also having success in launching beta products and reaching customers.
Here’s the lowdown on the companies:
Trill Financial, which uses data to quantify financial decisions and allow financial managers to save time on manual analysis, has released a beta version has received positive feedback from financial managers.
Tribal Intel, a service meant to streamline sales and customer feedback operations, has also released a beta site and is attracting customers.
Seal The Seasons, which freezes and distributes local produce to make it available year-round, took second place honors at Carolina Challenge and has continued to grow quickly in local markets.
SWAP Socks is creating mismatched socks with the purpose of raising awareness and money for visual impairment in developing countries; this team has been working with a manufacturer in western North Carolina to design and make the product while refining what Rousset calls “interesting and exciting sales methods” as they build their go-to-market plan.
BlipMe—a smartphone app used to keep tabs on friends’ locations, especially during nights out —and Textile Solutions, which works with manufacturers to repurpose industrial waste and use it to create new products, have built out their products and attracted customers. Rousset mentioned both are “heads down” as they are immersed in sales and business development processes.
To round out the new cohort, Waterless Buddy’s—another Carolina Challenge winner—has in a matter of months created a business plan for a waterless car-detailing service, tested it with customers, won various pitch competitions, gained attention from national media and attracted funding — all before taking part in Launch’s accelerator program.
“They really made us think and dive deeper,” Buddy’s co-founder Austin Helms says of the mentors at Launch, who he says preach long-term stability over short-term momentum. Mentors include serial entrepreneur, professor (and Launch co-founder) Jim Kitchen and Chris Mumford, founder of Joe Start up and an investor and corporate leader.
“In short, they saved us a ton of money.”
Launch is planning its first Demo Day in December, where the new cohort will pitch to members of the UNC and Chapel Hill communities, along with investors.
“We’re in the final stages of planning it,” Rousset says, adding that Top of the Hill Restaurant or Varsity Theatre serve as potential locations.
Building a startup pipeline in Orange County
The space is also occupied by several “tenant ventures”— graduates of the accelerator program that are not yet in position to rent their own office space but continue to make substantial progress toward scaling. Launch is currently housing 11 tenant ventures, including a handful that have recently made large steps forward.
UConnection, which provides exclusive coupons and daily specials in college towns, has grown from two colleges to 17 in the past year and has doubled its users this month. That’s leading to fresh funding discussions.
Sticker Farm, which creates toys and other childrens’ items, finished in the Top 20 of a recent Shopify contest with 63,000 total entries and has an upcoming pitch in front of Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban.
Tooth-friendly caramel maker Tom & Jenny’s has also fared well in business competitions as a recent winner of the Samuel Adams “Made in America” contest, building off a Carolina Challenge victory and an appearance in front of Steve Case in April’s Rise of the Rest event in Durham in May.
While the growth of the tenant ventures is encouraging, Rousset acknowledges that companies cannot stay at Launch forever.
“Every six months I have the very difficult job of sitting here and figuring out how many people can fit,” she says, noting that January is the next transition period, as Cohort 4 graduates and a new group of ventures enter.
“The town and the county work with us on (finding office space for ventures),” Rousset says. Earlier this year, UNC-Chapel Hill allowed a few promising Launch startups to work out of the University Square complex for six months before it was demolished. That period proved to be vitally important, allowing Keona Health and Impulsonic to close funding rounds.
Rousset has attributed much of the early success of Launch to the local mentors and groups who have offered their help. Experienced entrepreneurs and top investors from around the Triangle host lunch-and-learns at Launch, while local accounting, public relations and legal companies conduct free workshops for the Launch ventures. A few local landlords have offered discounts on office space for companies moving out of Launch, and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership has become a key partner in the initiative.
As entrepreneurship continues to become a priority on campus, Rousset is excited about the growth that the startup scene has experienced off the campus, as well.
“From the community, it’s been wonderful to see the support.”