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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Innovate Carolina activates network of entrepreneurial mentors to rally local startups

Startup consulting engagements are bringing together a dozen serial entrepreneurs who offer coaching, funding connections and business service support.

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

Across the country, as startup companies rush to adapt to the business challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, new resources and recently launched programs pop up constantly. Yet, a growing number of startups in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina are finding that one of their best resources isn’t new at all – it’s one with a decade-long proven track record of helping startups navigate tough entrepreneurial times.

Innovate Carolina has activated an existing group of entrepreneurs-in-residence, who originally banded together as part of the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network formed in 2011, to focus directly on helping companies push through pandemic-related business problems.

Innovate Carolina’s startup consulting services pull together a dozen highly experienced and successful EIR’s who originally united through the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network who work in concert to mentor local startup entrepreneurs on a range of issues. Every other Wednesday, roughly six EIR’s from the group gather online for a one-hour Zoom session with a company looking for advice. Startups make their presentations to the EIR’s, and what they receive during the Q&A discussion that follows can boost their business trajectory: access to funders, angel investors, advisory board members, venture coaches, administrative and marketing support, and deep expertise across a variety of industry sectors.

“We are rallying around the startups in our community with a deep bench of entrepreneurs who have not only been extremely successful in their own businesses but who also have immense experience providing coaching and connections to other young companies,” said Sheryl Waddell, director of the Innovate Carolina Global Network. “Our EIR’s have jumped in to guide startup companies during this critical period, and we want startups to understand that they don’t have to navigate these challenging times by themselves. We have expert entrepreneurs who are eager to mentor local founders on how to achieve planned milestones or make strategic pivots.”

Waddell said that one of the strengths of the mentors is their diversity of industry expertise that they can offer companies. Their experiences span numerous industries, including high-tech, life sciences, device development, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. The kind of advice founders get can be invaluable: Should we pursue funding or FDA approval first? How can we augment funding or pursue new funding paths? Do we need a business development partner – and who should we consider?

Innovate Carolina’s current startup consulting effort reimagines the entrepreneurial infrastructure created by the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, which was originally launched in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina in 2011 with a gift from The Blackstone Charitable Foundation. The network’s mission has been to catalyze the regional development of the Triangle’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and strengthen economic development in the area. By drawing on the talent of a regional pool of seasoned entrepreneurs, the network created a tightly connected team of EIR’s to support innovations with market potential. These innovations are created by area universities and regional startups, and the EIR’s have focused on ventures with the greatest potential to become high-growth companies. From 2012 to 2018, the network mentored more than 250 local companies, which went on to raise $430 million in capital.

With the foundation of this entrepreneurial expertise already firmly rooted throughout the Triangle, Innovate Carolina was able to jumpstart consulting engagements squarely focused on companies with particular needs arising during the coronavirus pandemic.

The startup companies aren’t the only ones benefiting from this latest effort orchestrated by Innovate Carolina and the regional network of entrepreneurs, Waddell said. Graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill are using the consulting service as a chance to learn and lend a hand, too.

As part of the service, Carolina MBA and Ph.D. students help the startups explore new markets, uncover potential funding, engage in customer discovery and other critical functions that the company founders may not have experience with or the resources to pursue on their own.

“For graduate students, this is a critical skills development opportunity because, in their academic work, they may not get the chance to be involved in business evaluation, due diligence, working side-by-side with serial entrepreneurs, or stepping into the actual operations of startup companies,” Waddell said. “The students work on exploring new business paths that may have been uncovered by the company and the EIR team. This allows the company to focus on immediate matters, but also investigate ideas that have been uncovered by the collective wisdom of EIR group.”

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill who are interested in participating can benefit from online lunch-and-learn sessions hosted bi-weekly by Innovate Carolina. These skill-driven trainings provide insights on primary market research, customer discovery, company valuation, due diligence and other topics.

Students bring their academic training and extra skills learned from the Innovate Carolina sessions to companies looking for support. So far, companies who have participated in the consulting engagements have been connected to a variety of local accelerators and programs, including KickStart Venture ServicesLaunch Chapel Hill and the Triangle’s university-based angel networks like Carolina Angel Network.

“We’ve seen a number of companies who are surveying the new business landscape and looking for guidance as they consider pivoting or exploring different avenues,” said Mireya McKee, interim director of KickStart Venture Services, which works with the faculty founders of startups based on intellectual property from UNC-Chapel Hill. “The entrepreneurs in this startup consulting service give them connections and access to resources that can quickly set them on promising paths forward.”