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Launching businesses and jobs

Velvet Nelson, the director of Launch Chapel Hill, discusses how the startup accelerator and coworking space formed out of a partnership between Carolina, the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County is helping the local economy.

Velvet Nelson standing near the entrance of Launch Chapel Hill.
Velvet Nelson at Launch Chapel Hill. (Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Named one of the most innovative universities in the world by Reuters, it’s no surprise that Carolina is home to hundreds of startups and growing businesses.

In the past six decades, nearly 800 companies have been founded by Tar Heels taking their ideas from classrooms and research labs to the marketplace to earn a profit, make a social impact and create jobs.

But a thriving business doesn’t just happen overnight.

That’s where Launch Chapel Hill comes in. A startup incubator and coworking space on Franklin Street, the program is helping local entrepreneurs and young businesses get their ideas off the ground.

Created in 2013 through a partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill, the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County, Launch Chapel Hill’s mission is to help high-impact startups and early-stage ventures fulfill their potential, hit the market and contribute to North Carolina’s economy through revenue and job creation.

Since opening, Launch Chapel Hill has supported 153 companies that have generated nearly $69 million in revenue and raised $38.4 million in total funding. Its ventures employ 802 people, including 684 in North Carolina and 435 in Orange County.

“Launch Chapel Hill has had great success with startup companies that are doing amazing work and contributing to the economic and social fabric of our community,” said Velvet Nelson, who has served as the director of Launch Chapel Hill since December 2019.

As the 15th and most recent cohort of Launch Chapel Hill startups wraps up its time in the accelerator program, Nelson discussed Launch Chapel Hill’s mission, its unique partnerships and how the organization is expanding its economic impact.

How does Launch Chapel Hill support the local community?

Our focus is to be a support system and program for individuals at the University or in the Chapel Hill and Orange County communities who want to start businesses. Most often, when individuals decide to start businesses, they don’t know where to start, and Launch Chapel Hill is a good starting point for that. We get you in the Triangle startup ecosystem. We get you mentors and coaches and give you access to resources to start your business.

Our coworking space is an opportunity for entrepreneurs and individuals in the community to connect with others. At the coworking space, you’re really immersing yourself in a network of like-minded individuals who are focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The accelerator that we run is a more focused program. It’s a 13-week program that really centers around hyper-growing individual businesses. People who apply to that program have an idea, they’ve validated that idea and now they’re just looking to find programing and resources to grow that business.

Why are those resources and supports so important for a young business?

There’s just a lot of things that you have to do as a business owner. There’s legal. There’s accounting. There’s marketing. There are financials. By accessing something like Launch Chapel Hill, you’re surrounding yourself with a community of individuals and experts who have all been through the same thing. When a company joins our network and joins our community, they expose themselves to a pool of individuals and resources that want to help them move their company forward faster.

Rather than sitting at home and trying to figure out all of this stuff on your own, you can join this community where everyone has been through it.

How does Launch Chapel Hill ultimately impact the North Carolina economy?

What we’re offering is really special, and the reason Launch Chapel Hill is unique is that we are focused on an economic development initiative. We really want to foster job creation and job growth across the town and the county.

To have a program that is mission-driven toward that goal is what makes Launch Chapel Hill distinctive. There are a lot of economic development agencies across towns and across cities that talk about job creation and encouraging small businesses on Main Street. Launch Chapel Hill is a big step in solving that problem because the first thing that you’ll hear from people who want to start companies and create jobs is that they don’t know where to get started.

Just having that front door where someone can come in and start focusing on their business is huge. Ultimately, it creates jobs for people in the local community. It creates a tax revenue increase, and we can then pour that back into the town and the county so we can create more programs and services that serve our citizens.

Why is the partnership between Carolina, the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County so critical in this economic development effort?

Just being connected to all three of our partners — the town, the county and the University — is what sets Launch Chapel Hill apart from other nonprofit organizations that might be trying to do something similar. From the town and county perspectives, our Launch Chapel Hill companies are informed about economic development initiatives and grant funding opportunities just because they’re affiliated with our program. They get connections to economic development officers, town departments and county departments. Having that connection is huge.

On top of that, with the University, there’s access to so many resources that you need as an entrepreneur. Professors coming to teach classes is something that’s very useful and attractive to founders. But it’s also Carolina’s talent pipeline. A lot of our companies are hiring directly from the University for interns and full-time positions because they see what our students are capable of doing.

Innovate Carolina recently received a gift from Lee-Moore Capital Company to expand programming. What does the future look like for Launch?

We’re really focusing on a lot of things in the coming years.

One is the idea of creating innovation hubs in local communities. Our goal is to partner with Innovate Carolina to create a one-stop experience for entrepreneurs where they can access all the resources that they need. The second thing is expanding our programming. We have our accelerator, and we think that we do really, really well with that, but we only accept 10 companies per year. What we really want to do over the next 18 to 24 months is find out what our local entrepreneurs need beyond just our accelerator. And then we plan to create additional programming that will satisfy those needs, whether that means resources for really early-stage companies that aren’t quite ready for our accelerator or later-stage companies that are beyond the accelerator and just need more programming to grow and scale.

We’re really working on pinpointing what those next needs are so we can develop additional programming around what will help companies the most.

Learn more about Launch Chapel Hill