Launch Chapel Hill, UNC’s new venture lab and business accelerator, is celebrating its grand opening on May 1. Through street-smart training, mentoring, fundraising assistance and all-you-can-drink coffee, Launch will help business ideas created on campus or in town grow into successful self-sustaining enterprises.
The accelerator, which unofficially opened its doors in February, is already home to 16 local ventures. These entrepreneurs represent the entire spectrum of the startup process, ranging from college students still developing their business plans to fulltime business owners looking to secure additional funding.
“On one side the building we have ABAN, a social venture that works in Ghana to get women off the streets, and the other side we have DataCraft, a company that does lean inventory management systems; it’s a totally commercial venture,” said program manager Dina Mills. “We can help no matter where they are in the process or what they’re trying to do.”
For “chaplain entrepreneur” John Stonestreet, Launch has been instrumental in getting HopeCare, a startup that addresses spiritual, emotional and financial challenges of end-of-life healthcare, off the ground.
“I remember walking in the first day and seeing a sign that says ‘where stuff gets done,’ and I’ve had that feeling ever since I first walked into the place,” he said. “I’ve been more productive working here than I’ve been in the last year of trying to start my business.”
Launch grew out of a partnership between UNC, the town of Chapel Hill and Orange County. While UNC wanted to encourage entrepreneurship among the student body, Chapel Hill was looking for a way to keep recent graduates and their new startups within the city limits. Mills said it is the only incubator in the country built on a town-and-gown partnership, which allows Launch to share its resources with the entire community, rather than just students.
The close partnership with the university also ensures that Launch will have a steady stream of aspiring entrepreneurs with viable business ideas.
Several companies, such as ABAN, moved on to Launch after receiving a head start in the startup process during UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Launching the Venture program. Through lectures, workshops and hands-on expert coaching, Launching the Venture equips entrepreneurs with the skills they need to start a successful venture, from writing a business plan to financing.
“With Launch, Kenan-Flagler was looking to create a place for entrepreneurs to come out of the educational environment at UNC and have a place to actually apply what they’ve learned,” said Mills. “In some ways it’s an extension of the classroom -- experiential learning.”
One of the biggest benefits for new startups is the accelerator’s networking and mentoring program. Launch’s entrepreneur in residence Jim Kitchen, a UNC Kenan-Flagler lecturer in entrepreneurship, uses his experience starting multiple successful businesses to help new entrepreneurs navigate the venture process. He also serves as their connection to the area’s broader startup community and introduces them to industry-specific mentors. Drawing on UNC Kenan-Flagler’s extensive network, Launch has access to more 250 vetted mentors.
Launch also sponsors speaker and workshop series to introduce entrepreneurs to relevant service providers for their businesses, from lawyers to accountants to marketing professionals. After the workshops provide a basic introduction, service providers will staff “guru desks” on a monthly basis to meet with entrepreneurs one on one. Launch entrepreneurs even have access to preferential or pro bono rates for these services.
“For an entrepreneur, especially if they’re working on their own, finding those essential services and finding the right advice can be really challenging,” said Mills.
With its collaborative culture and co-working spaces, Launch also encourages entrepreneurs to learn from each other. Those in the earlier stages of the process set up camp at “hot desks,” open working spaces, that allow them to easily share their experiences, frustrations and questions with each other. In addition, the accelerator sponsors regular social events to help foster a supportive environment in the Rosemary Street office.
“The most challenging part of being an entrepreneur is the loneliness that comes with going all out to pursue your vision. No one else has a vested interest in helping you get where you want to get,” said Stonestreet. “Part of the nuance of that loneliness is even people who might seem to be interested in what you’re doing may be potential competitors. That’s why Launch is necessary.”