What is your role in the Raleigh-Durham startup ecosystem?
I refer to myself as the chief pot-stirrer. Seven years ago there was very little activity in our region, so my role at that time was to create activity through one-on-one meetings, events (such as pitch events and job fairs), and crowd-sourced information blogs—really whatever it took. For the last six years I operated two investment accelerators, which collectively invested in 42 companies. I also am part of an informal group of community leaders who look for ways to increase both the scope and speed of our startup ecosystem’s growth.
One of those investment accelerators is the Startup Factory, right? Can you tell us a little more about that?
The Startup Factory is a ‘seed investment meets hyper-active mentorship’ entity that was active from 2012 to 2016. We are no longer making new investments, but my partner, Dave Neal, and I continue to manage the 35 investments we made during those years.
What are some of the inputs that have helped the Raleigh-Durham ecosystem grow?
Raleigh-Durham is unique in that it has three large universities (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Duke, North Carolina State) and a handful of smaller colleges that serve as excellent feeders for ideas, talent, capital, and awareness. Additionally, the Research Triangle Park (RTP) was created over 50 years ago and houses thousands of talented employees of IBM, Cisco, GSK, NetApp, and many others. Those elements, combined with the low cost of living here, have really helped us grow.
What are the most unique features of the Raleigh-Durham startup community?
The number one feature that sets the Raleigh-Durham startup community apart is our inclusive nature. As startup community underdogs (as compared to New York City or Boston), we understand that we have to work harder and smarter than many other communities. North Carolina, specifically the Raleigh-Durham metro area, has experienced huge population growth and will continue to see a huge in-migration of talent—we are expected to add 1 million people by 2025. Every single person you speak to from our startup ecosystem will share that this region embraces them and empowers them from day one. In addition, our diversity statistics shatter national numbers. For example, the Startup Factory’s founders were one-third female and one-third minority. These trends are also reflected in our co-working spaces.
What is the biggest challenge you face in Raleigh-Durham?
I’d say it’s figuring out how to maintain all of the momentum built over the past seven years. This is not unlike the pressure that a growing company has as it matures. Our success has been built on a platform of #givefirst, which has has enabled us to do more things faster. But it gets harder to maintain that tight community as you get bigger. Our challenge will be in navigating future success with the same underdog intensity.
Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers?
Our startup culture is unique and exciting and as such, it draws attention from policymakers at all levels. Most of the interactions are in the context of tours and hallway conversations. The Startup Factory has hosted a handful of state policymakers to share our observations. When I think about challenges and the next phase of startup community growth for Raleigh-Durham, I see an opportunity to bring awareness of the growing startup scene to policymakers, and even influence policy and behavior as a stretch goal.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened in Raleigh-Durham in the past year?
There really is not any one thing but a bunch of good things that add up to the continued growth of the area’s startup ecosystem. The first installment of Moogfest (a futuristic conference and music festival) was held in Durham to much acclaim. The American Underground entrepreneur campus (in coordination with Google for Entrepreneurs and Black Wall Street Homecoming) launched a week-long series of events where black founders from around the country received mentorship and extended their networks. The region continued to grow through HQ Raleigh’s expansion of their footprint locally as well as into other geographies. Outside venture capital invested in local companies also continues to rise.
What are some of the startups to watch coming out of Raleigh/Durham?
I’m keeping an eye on:
Sift, which has created a bidding system for mobile ad opportunities and is the third startup from an outstanding multiple exit founder.
Adwerx, which gives real estate agents smarter advertising tools.
FilterEasy, a high-growth startup from a group of first time founders that automates air filter delivery.
Pendo, a product experience platform that also had one of the largest funding rounds for a tech company in NC in 2016.