A home for entrepreneurs

Launch, a partnership project, has been providing area startups with resources needed to grow their business for five years.

A woman talks at Launch Chapel Hill
Launch Chapel Hill space in 2018. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The first few months — or years — of a startup company is a strenuous time of balancing developing the business with the demands of running the day-to-day operations.

Add on the financial commitment of an office lease and making new business connections, the growing pains can quickly become overwhelming for a young company.

That’s where Launch Chapel Hill has come in for dozens of local startups.

For the past five years, Launch has been supporting local entrepreneurs. Since opening in 2013, the organization has served 75 startups and has been named among the top five university business accelerators in the country.

“Launch has been a place where the community could come to together — the University, through both the [UNC Kenan-Flagler] Business School and Innovate at Carolina, the town and the county — to provide a central space for the community of entrepreneurs to grow and develop,” said Dina Rousset, director of Launch.

Formed as a partnership with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Orange County and the Town of Chapel Hill, Launch has been serving the local community by providing area startups with a majority of the resources needed to grow their businesses. The Becker Family provided initial funding for the program in memory of their daughter Cara Gwen Becker.

“Launch is an accelerator program,” Rousset said. “Our mission is to provide the tools and resources to assist scalable businesses to raise funding, build teams, move their projects along so that they can move their businesses along so they can move back out into the community and grow their businesses.”

Aimed at helping high-impact startups and early-stage ventures grow their potential, Launch has become a hub for entrepreneurship not just in Chapel Hill, but the Triangle area.

“Launch made everything easier,” said Steve Beisser, who spent nearly 18 months at Launch as the co-founder of the Academic Benchmark Consortium. “It just makes things easier because you don’t have to worry about things like the physical infrastructure. All this stuff of setting up the physical structure of a business is taken off your hands.”

And it’s still growing. The program just welcomed its ninth cohort of startups in January and now provides workspace for other young companies in the area.

An accelerator

Twice a year, Launch welcomes a new cohort of entrepreneurs — Carolina students, faculty, staff and community members — looking to take their company to the next level.  The 22-week program serves as a spark for the young companies.

“We’re all over the board: low-tech, high-tech, no-tech, clean-tech, for-profit, non-profit, consumer products, healthcare apps,” Rousset said.

Although Launch doesn’t provide any funding for the startups, what it does offer can make a monumental difference for the companies. Through funding from the University’s Innovate Carolina and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the program gives the young companies all the tools necessary to grow.

The accelerator features workshops with local resources and experts including lawyers, marketing firms and financial consultants that help companies get the help they need and make useful connections. Each member of Launch also is paired up with entrepreneurs-in-residence mentors — many of whom are professors at Kenan-Flagler Business School or Carolina alumni.

“These are four serial entrepreneurs who have started, run, exited, bankrupted multiple companies in the course of their career,” Rousset said of the entrepreneurs-in-residence. “They have great experiences in starting and growing something.”

Launch also provides an environment of entrepreneurs — a facet Rousset said shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Just by having a space where they can work with others who are starting businesses, they get to crowdsource problems or issues or challenges or share what’s going well,” Rousset said. “They learn from each other.”

It’s an environment that has led to numerous success stories, including UConnection, a mobile app created by two Carolina students in 2013 to give college students discounts at restaurants.

Using the program’s entrepreneurs-in-residence mentors and local experts connected to Launch, Taylor Meyer and the UConnection team were able to grow their business in just nine months — and eventually watch it be acquired a year later in a seven-figure dollar deal.

“Launch was an awesome help for us,” Meyer said. “It was at Launch that we expanded all over North Carolina and grew UConnection to 17 universities.”

A new hub

Over the years, the Launch has expanded its mission beyond the six-month program to supporting and mentoring its startups even after they head back out into the community.

For many of the startups developing under Launch’s program, the biggest resource has simply been having an office.

When Beisser quit his job in healthcare in 2013 to start a new business designed to help universities and colleges make strategic financial decisions, his plan was initially to launch within North Carolina.

“The business plan was pretty simple: Get UNC-Chapel Hill involved,” he said. “If they said no, we’d disband. We needed to get it started here.”

But when Carolina said yes, and encouraged Academic Benchmark Consortium to go national right away, the company needed to find a way to grow faster. Launch became the tool to help them expand fast enough to keep up with their plans.

Academic Benchmark Consortium moved into the Launch accelerator in January 2015. With resource partners ready to help and an office ready to walk into, the team behind the consortium was able to focus solely on their work.

By the end of that year, the consortium had acquired four universities including the University of California-Berkley and the University of Texas at Austin.

“If you’re really serious about your idea, it’s a big bold move to quit your day job, but it’s nice to know that you have somewhere to start it physically and that you’re going to be connected into a support group,” Beisser said. “Launch let us focus on the business and not so much on the back office. In the real world, you have to deal with the landlord, deal with insurance, furniture, all this little stuff, all this infrastructure.”

But businesses can’t stay at Launch forever. And to continue to help local startups, the program has created another solution: co-working space.

Instead of companies having to sign a multiyear lease in an office building, Launch began leasing out working spaces with short-term agreements to allow growing businesses to remain flexible and keep expenses low.

“You walk in, and you’re ready to go,” Rousset said. “You walk in with your laptop and everything else is there. Your furniture is there, your internet is there, your phone is there.”

It’s just another way Launch sets entrepreneurs up for success.

“When you’re starting a business, both human resources and financial are very limited, and you’re trying to grow quickly and focus all of your efforts on the business function itself and not have to worry about the little things,” Meyer said. “[Launch] really does take a lot off your plate.”

Editor’s note: A portion of this story was published Nov. 11, 2016