Innovation and Entrepreneurship

UNC-Chapel Hill innovation hub gets green light, speeds economic development downtown

University leaders announce the approval of a lease at Grubb Properties’ 136 Rosemary Street for a downtown Chapel Hill innovation hub, which will anchor a town-gown strategy for growing more innovation-focused companies, industry partnerships and talent.

An artist rendering of 136 Rosemary Street.
An artist rendering of 136 Rosemary Street.

By this time next year, Chapel Hill will feature an innovation hub that will be a magnet for those seeking the inventive research and entrepreneurial vibrancy of UNC-Chapel Hill and connections to the community partners and businesses coming to town.

This week, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a significant step forward in launching a full-scale innovation hub as the UNC Board of Governors approved the University’s lease for approximately 20,000 square-feet of space in the building located at 136 East Rosemary Street that is being renovated and reimagined by Grubb Properties in the heart of downtown Chapel Hill. The University’s innovation hub will be home to Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s central team that provides strategic guidance and practical tools and resources to support people and organizations on campus and in the community who make an economic and social impact through innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development. The building will also be home to other life science and high-tech companies, creating new opportunities for academic-industry collaborations.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s hub will co-locate the University’s programming that supports innovation, entrepreneurship and its research-to-market pipeline with a startup accelerator, co-working space and collaborative business environment for industry and community partners. The hub will offer the innovation centers of large corporations opportunities to team with Carolina researchers and connect with the University’s significant pool of innovation talent to build cross-functional solutions to business and social challenges.  Startups, small businesses, nonprofits, corporations and investors will use the hub to work closely with students, faculty and inventors to build new ventures, products, services and technologies. This space is expected to open in the second quarter of 2023. Innovate Carolina is now accepting inquiries of interest from organizations and individuals who may be interested in joining the hub through individual subscriptions and program memberships.

“Collaboration spurs innovation, particularly when we combine the knowledge and research expertise of faculty and students with the market-driven experience of business leaders, alumni and major industry partners,” said Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. “Downtown Chapel Hill is brimming with opportunities for strategic collaborations, and the work that leaders in our local Carolina community are doing together will make the new innovation hub a place where we can cultivate talent for North Carolina’s future workforce. Our teams of innovation strategists and practitioners are moving research and ideas from campus into the world to make a true impact.”

The hub is part of the Carolina Economic Development Strategy, which is designed to create a downtown innovation district that will retain, attract and grow more innovation-oriented companies and talent in Chapel Hill. This effort is led by Innovate Carolina and two town-gown committees comprised of University, town and community leaders. The new innovation hub will serve as an anchor to the district and spark job creation, industry partnerships that speed new research-driven products, experiential learning for student entrepreneurs, and the establishment and growth of new companies and non-profits focused on creating social and economic good.

“The innovation hub is a central part of our shared plan for making Chapel Hill a place that is even more inviting for companies and individual professionals who are looking for a place to grow their ideas and expand their businesses,” said Town of Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.  “We’ve made great strides in enhancing our infrastructure and increasing available office spaces to begin transforming the downtown into a vibrant innovation district where people from across our community can come together and find new avenues to thrive.”

BioLabs, a premier co-working space for life science startups, will also be located in Grubb Properties’ 136 Rosemary Street building and at the adjoining 137 East Franklin Street address. Announced last fall, BioLabs and the University are developing a strategic partnership to create a greater number of startups based on UNC-Chapel Hill faculty research. The partnership will involve collaboration with Innovate Carolina’s on-campus KickStart Accelerator for life science ventures. The presence of BioLabs in the downtown innovation district provides an attractive avenue for faculty-founded startups that seek larger shared office and lab environments when they outgrow their earliest company spaces on campus.

An innovation hub for all

Members of the Chapel Hill innovation hub will be able to choose from among a variety of workspace options, including floating desks and co-working areas, private offices, conference rooms, a training room, business center, and event and networking areas. Through these creative environments, the hub will offer programming and opportunities to connect and collaborate with a wide range of people and organizations interested in innovation and entrepreneurship.

  • Startups and small businesses.Early-stage ventures and small businesses can participate in startup accelerator programming, use collaborative workspaces and forge connections with a large network of entrepreneurial advisors, talented students, researchers and strategic business partners.
  • Corporations.Larger companies can explore opportunities to partner with University researchers on new discoveries emerging from on-campus labs, de-risk research that may be connected to commercial pathways, and connect with innovation-oriented students.
  • Faculty and Students.Through the hub, faculty can forge inventive partnerships with the research-and-development divisions of corporate leaders, while students can experience learning opportunities that come from working with other student entrepreneurs and companies that need fellows, interns and future employees.
  • Alumni.Carolina alumni can use the hub as physical space to remain connected to the University, securing regular remote office for themselves or their companies, or reserving professional space to use when they travel to Chapel Hill.
  • Remote workers.The hub will also provide local remote workers – whether working corporate or freelance jobs – with flexible workspaces where they can work independently or in collaborative group settings.

Innovation programs and services

Beyond physical workspaces, the hub will offer a full suite of entrepreneurial and innovation-focused programs and services. These will be provided by Innovate Carolina’s team of experienced entrepreneurial practitioners and a group of campus and community partners.

Large corporations and industry partners will find opportunities to work with students and faculty via experiential learning, emerging technologies and new commercial pathways.

“The new downtown hub is where we’ll put innovation into practice by equipping all types of organizations and people from the Chapel Hill community with the entrepreneurial tools, skills and methods they need to activate and scale their ideas,” said Sheryl Waddell, Carolina’s interim director of economic development. “Whether you’re an individual entrepreneur, a small startup or a multi-national corporation, the hub will offer programs and services that help you move new products and services to the commercial market or toward social impact faster and with greater focus.”

Programs and services offered at the innovation hub will include:

  • Startup accelerator program. The innovation hub will be the new home of Launch Chapel Hill, the award-winning accelerator created through a partnership between the University, Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County that provides workspaces, entrepreneur-in-residence mentors, tech resources, networking and access to professional services.
  • Design thinking. Experts in human-centered design will offer workshops and personalized sessions that help individual innovators and organizations of all sizes use proven methods to identify customer needs earlier and build more focused technologies, products and services.
  • Patent landscaping and market research. A team of research experts who have worked with hundreds of inventors, startups and entrepreneurs will provide custom analytical reports and insights that assess market readiness, the competitive landscape, pricing models, and potential partners and funding.
  • Venture development services.Innovate Carolina’s venture services include event-related programs such as industry workshops and focus groups, advisor presentation meetings and reverse pitches, along with project-focused initiatives like student fellowship programs, grant-writing support, and business development.
  • Talent recruiting. Innovate Carolina’s student innovation programs help new ventures, small businesses and innovation-oriented organizations connect with some of the most enterprising students to explore internships, experiential learning and other professional development paths.

Organizations and individuals who are interested in learning more about the innovation hub or participating in the downtown district can contact Innovate Carolina via an online interest form. Innovate Carolina is working to connect interested parties to potential opportunities for getting involved.