#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Eric Parker, founder and president, theClubhou.se
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
Making Startups in Augusta and Beyond
The Atlanta metropolitan area, with its population of over 5.9 million people, may be considered the focal point of innovation and growth in Georgia, but the city of Augusta is also transforming into a hub of tech and startup activity. Part of that is due to the tireless efforts of Eric Parker, who has been working to help startups thrive in the Augusta area through theClubhou.se, a design research lab focused on facilitating the growth of healthy entrepreneur ecosystems. Eric has also expanded his model to help increase startup development through Make Startups, which also works to empower startup ecosystems across the country.
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?
I am an Augusta native and an architect. Before building startup ecosystems, I was founder and president of CONima Inc., a Silicon Valley-based architecture firm where I designed headquarters and R&D facilities for many Fortune 100 companies. After relocating to my hometown, my work was featured in the Stanford d.school publication, “Make Space: How to set the stage for Creative Collaboration.” The project I designed for venture capital firm Innovation Endeavors became a gateway into how my work in placemaking could translate into greater impacts in community building.
Can you tell us more about your work in Augusta’s startup ecosystem?
As an architect focused on the technology and innovation sector in Augusta, I struggled to find an entry point into the marketplace. Augusta is a city with a wealth of resources, but the majority of its economy was based on government sector investments: Department of Defense (Ft. Gordon and NSA Georgia), Department of Energy (Savannah River Site and Savannah River National Lab), and the Medical College of Georgia. My work began with a simple question: How do you Hack Augusta (a nonprofit innovation development company I started) to create a culture of innovation and collaboration? I started by organizing hackathons to find a community that shared this interest. Since that point, I still approach everything as a consultant working to understand what that community needs and finding ways to provide it.
Tell us about the work you do with Make Startups and theClubhou.se. What are some of the programs and opportunities you offer local entrepreneurs?
For me, theClubhou.se is a design research lab for developing and testing solutions for facilitating a healthy entrepreneur ecosystem. Make Startups was formed in 2017 to begin sharing that experience to help other ecosystems flourish. The real question is, what do we mean when we say “healthy ecosystem?” Sector wide, there is a common belief in putting the entrepreneurs first. We’re ultimately here to serve their needs and help them form a community-wide system of support.
At theClubhou.se, we divide our process into unstructured and structured learning. The unstructured side includes coworking and makerspace memberships, the ability to schedule free office hours with service professionals from the community, and participate in peer-to-peer learning groups on subjects including web development, cybersecurity, robotics, and founding a business. Through structured learning, we have two signature programs: Startup Life, an inclusive business accelerator program that includes room and board for entrepreneurs for a year, and code bootcamp, a 12-week course in full stack web development that trains unemployed and underemployed individuals for careers in web development. The bootcamp has a 95 percent job placement rate, with startups providing the first job for 25 percent of graduates.
Through Make Startups, we are promoting the idea that, while entrepreneur-centric, a healthy ecosystem must include a healthy financial model for the ecosystem builders that make it possible. We have seen too many ecosystem hubs close in recent years due to the unsustainability of their financial structures. Our goal is to remove financial barriers for ecosystem builders so they can focus on supporting entrepreneurs in their communities. We do this through group workshops, consulting, and program licensing. Our favorite workshop is Launch Camp, a multi day wilderness adventure retreat for ecosystem builders, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy makers, where we break barriers and form bonds that enable ecosystems to succeed.
What makes Augusta’s startup system unique?
How many cities under a population of one million have Army Cyber Command, a Department of Energy National lab, a state’s largest medical school, and one of the largest sporting events in the world all wrapped up together in one of the lowest cost of living areas in the nation? Augusta, GA does, plus it has theClubhou.se.
What are the most exciting or important developments that has happened to Augusta’s ecosystem in the last year?
Augusta is abuzz with excitement around the growth of cybersecurity. The U.S. Army announced that it is relocating Cyber Command to Augusta in 2020, and as a byproduct, the state has invested $100 million to create the Georgia Cyber Center on downtown Augusta’s riverfront, with theClubhou.se managing the innovation space within it. In less than a year since moving in, our community of entrepreneurs has doubled in size, and we’ve gained many new community partners to support local innovation. Through that, we’re seeing growth in cybersecurity-related startups and investment opportunities.
Are there any policies at the federal, state, or local level that have helped either Augusta’s or Georgia’s ecosystem?
At the federal level, the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) has been a game changer for us operationally. It allows us to create programs that earn revenue to support our team, while directly supporting our mission in the community.
What is the biggest challenges Augusta’s ecosystem still faces?
Challenges are interesting because they really begin to define the approach of growing a particular ecosystem. Most of them seem fairly common, but how they are overcome is actually what creates the rich diversity of thought in our country. Our biggest challenges have always been regional talent retention, regional support for local businesses, and access to capital--common lists for almost every city I’ve visited. None are solved, but these conditions have improved through our work, and sometimes acknowledging them frees our startups to pursue different approaches to growth that might be easier.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for the state's startup ecosystem?
At a state level, every community continues to struggle with being dwarfed by Atlanta. When looking at a state with 10.5 million people, where 5.9 million live in Atlanta, it becomes easy to justify the concentration of investments in that capital city. Our hope is that the state will grow its recognition that half of its population lives outside of Atlanta. When looking at GDP per capita, Atlanta measures $57,000, whereas communities like Augusta, Columbus, and Savannah are all at or below $40,000. Growing investments in entrepreneurship in small-to-midsize communities has a tremendous upside as we continue to close that gap and create an inclusive statewide economy.
Looking through that statewide lens, Georgia would benefit greatly from the development of funding mechanisms for non-university system affiliated incubators, and to test pilot matching ways to adapt the state’s venture capital investment fund standards to create more opportunities for startups and angel funds in small-to-midsize communities.
What is your goal for the next year? The next five years?
In the next year, our goal is to extend startup support services regionally to serve suburban and rural markets in the Augusta area, and to support 5-10 ecosystems outside of our regional market through workshops and consulting services. Over the next 5 years, our goal is to help ecosystem builders across America make startups by improving the economics that underlie their operations.
Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email email@example.com.