A recent TV ad shows firefighters filling the seats of the U.S. Senate. “Anyone want clean water?” asks a fireman, in full gear, moderating the vote. Upon hearing a chorus of affirmatives, he slams down the gavel. “OK, we got clean water. What’s next?” Then he adds an aside, “Easiest job I ever had.”
But as Kari Leech knows, the distance between wanting clean water and getting it is far from easy. Leech, working on her master’s in engineering at UNC, is part of WaterPLUS, a five-member team trying to commercialize a water-purifying device. Lucky for the team, and the residents of the developing countries who would benefit from their innovation, WaterPLUS was one of seven startups selected for the Business Accelerator for Sustainable Entrepreneurship (BASE) pilot program, through the Kenan-Flagler’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise.
“What we learned through BASE other businesses learn by stumbling upon it over the years through people they happen upon,” Leech said. “We accomplished it all in a few months through the BASE mentors and other businesses that had been through this process.”
BASE completed its six-month pilot program in September and is now accepting applications for its inaugural yearlong, full-scale program to begin in January. The original seven members will grow to a cohort of 20 sustainable businesses.
The pilot program tapped alumni, including Kenan-Flagler faculty member Lisa Jones Christensen, for a 14-member advisory board to mentor the seven businesses. The program began with a speed-mentoring session similar to a speed-dating lunch to let entrepreneurs list their greatest needs and learn the expertise of the mentors. The information exchange deepened over a series of special topic lunches between mentors and entrepreneurs. BASE hosted two in-depth workshops on public relations and branding, and legal aspects of sustainable businesses. Two panel discussions on those topics were open to the public.
Henry McKoy, chairman and CEO of Fourth Sector Bancorp in Durham, accepted an invitation to join the advisory board and mentor young businesses pursuing the triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social sustainability. He said he took satisfaction in “seeing the light bulbs go on” as the entrepreneurs explored their business dreams. “These are people who get it,” McKoy said. The challenge, he said, comes in “lining up the right business with the right strategy.”
In the full-scale program, entrepreneurs will benefit from free clinics with lawyers, accountants and marketing experts, and a package of pro bono and discounted hours with resource providers. Through workshops and small-group discussions over lunch, BASE members can network with people who have already been through the development process. Webinars for BASE members also will be made available to businesses across North Carolina.
“The sustainability sector is still in the emerging stages,” McKoy said. “Sometimes it feels like the wild, wild West.”
BASE will make room for students, too, by structuring opportunities for them to work on consulting projects with BASE entrepreneurs through the STAR program. BASE businesses will open internships for students. A social capital investment fund is in the works that will be designed and managed by Kenan-Flagler students who will raise the capital, source deals, perform due diligence and make investment decisions under the auspices of an advisory board. The fund would invest in BASE businesses and other sustainable businesses in the state.
“We have many students across campus interested in sustainability,” said BASE program manager Jessica Thomas of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise. “In addition to working with sustainable entrepreneurs from across the state, BASE can create a pipeline so that when student-based sustainable businesses finish Launching the Venture or the Carolina Challenge, we can bring them into the BASE program as a next step.”
Businesses best suited for BASE go beyond a good idea – they have a solid business plan, an understanding of where their market is, an idea of their financing needs and a willingness to listen. WaterPLUS, one of the earliest-stage startups in BASE, found value in the networking potential of the mentors and other startups.
“We gained so much information hearing what everyone else was going through,” Leech said. “They asked questions we wouldn’t have thought to ask because they were at different stages of development. It was a great opportunity to meet people in the industry who were willing to help us.”