Innovation and Entrepreneurship

How space and programming create intersections of innovation

The new Innovate Carolina Junction will use dedicated spaces and intentional programming to promote convergence and collaboration and create a vibrant coworking community.

Sheryl Waddell sitting on a couch.
Sheryl Waddell, Innovate Carolina’s director of economic development and innovation hubs. (Photo by Sarah Daniels)

The Innovate Carolina Junction is now open in the newest building in downtown Chapel Hill at 137 E. Franklin St. Designed and created by Innovate Carolina – the central team for innovation, entrepreneurship and economic development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the Junction connects the university and community to all aspects of economic and social impact. It’s for anyone with a curiosity and passion for solving problems to converge, convene and create to make an impact.

The Junction also will serve as the anchor for an innovation district being formed, which will keep startups created at Carolina in Chapel Hill, helping to strengthen the economy. Although the building is still being completed, the sixth floor is open and currently houses Innovate Carolina and Launch Chapel Hill as additional space is completed this summer. In this Q&A, Sheryl Waddell, Innovate Carolina’s director of economic development and innovation hubs, shares how the Junction will use space, programs and the environment to create valuable intersections of innovation.

Who is the Innovate Carolina Junction for, and how can someone get involved?

At the Junction, we really want to create an open-door environment and atmosphere where anyone is welcome. We’re really looking to integrate startup companies: faculty startups, student startups, alumni startups or even startups from the broader community. That different makeup is really important. In addition, we’re looking to have small businesses and even innovation groups from larger corporations. We really think having that dynamic mix of different types of companies enables them to learn from and feed off each other. We also think there’s an opportunity for alumni who want to use the Junction as a temporary or hybrid workforce. There’s a lot of remote workers who are being hired by companies like Microsoft, Oracle or Apple, and we think the Junction can be an outlet for them to have an office to come into and also participate in a community of innovators.

Why is it important for the Junction to be located next door to UNC-Chapel Hill?

It’s critically important for us to be adjacent to the university, which has so many resources available for the community to take advantage of. Having a close entry point allows for collaboration to be fostered between the university, community and industry… growing and helping to seed those deeper relationships. It also allows for a lot of serendipitous meetings and conversations that can lead to opportunity. Creating a space where you have that collision and collaboration area, we find this really important.

In addition, being so close to the university allows for students who want to intern with a small startup company located in the Junction… they can walk right over from campus, right from their classes to the internship. They don’t need to have a car to get to us. Similarly, faculty members who may be conducting research or teaching a class on campus can come over to the Junction directly after that for a meeting with an industry partner, which makes it really convenient for everyone.

From a community perspective, right now, we have a space where the community can intersect with the university: the Carolina Coffee Shop. While we’re hoping they still do that, we hope that when they’re ready to take that relationship to the next level, grab a whiteboard and map out how they can work together, having the Junction right across the street will be really convenient and make it that much easier for those relationships to establish and grow.

What role will Innovate Carolina play in the Junction? What about Launch Chapel Hill?

Innovate Carolina’s offices will be part of the Junction. More importantly, we will be the facilitators of all the innovation programming and activation of the Junction itself. So not only will we be there on a daily basis to provide and cultivate that community, but we’ll also provide guidance to the community members that are part of the Junction, providing a concierge-type of service where we can be that bridge to the university and different university programs. We’ll also activate this space by hosting workshops, networking events and integrate different programs within the university to participate in the Junction, including different signature events where we’ll partner with both industry and university programs and departments.

And we’re really excited for Launch Chapel Hill to be in the space as well because they are an accelerator. They will have their administrative offices and host their accelerator in the Junction. Launch cohorts will participate in the workshops that the accelerator offers in the Junction, and then each of the cohort members will be provided with a free coworking membership for a year in the Junction.

In addition, we’re actively identifying outside partners that bring networks of people to the Junction, including the Digital Health Institute of Technology, Leadership Triangle and the Small Business and Technology Development Center at Durham Tech. We’re looking to work with those organizations and also offer events and networking opportunities in the Junction as well.

What type of workspaces will be in the Junction? How they will be useful to all types of people? 

We’re looking at a diverse group of people using the Junction, and we’ve created part-time and full-time hoteling space for membership. So if someone wants to just have a membership for Monday, Wednesday and Fridays for a few hours, they can have a part-time membership, and that part-time membership allows them to come in and sit at one of the flexible desk spaces. This membership is open, and they also have a specific number of hours where they’ll have access to conference rooms as well. If they have a big meeting, they can schedule time in a conference room because there are multiple conference rooms in the coworking space.

In addition, we have several dedicated desk spaces. Members can come in on a regular basis and have their monitors set up, have a locked filing cabinet and really have the ability to make that space their home. It’s an open, cubicle-type of desk space. And as these companies grow and want to move into a private space, we’ll have private offices available as well. The private offices will accommodate anywhere from a two-person private office to a five-to-six-person private office.

We can offer startups an environment where they can start as a one or two-person company and, as they grow, have the ability to change their membership on the fly. One month, they’re at a hotel desk, and the next month – because they’re growing – they can arrange for a private office, which comes with a desk and a chair.

Multiple conference rooms in different sizes with state-of-the-art A/V equipment will be available, as well as a wellness room if you need some quiet time. We’ll also have a mother’s room, and we will also have huddle rooms and phone booths. If you are having a meeting and want to jump into a huddle room to have a private conversation with someone, or if your need to jump into a Zoom meeting, we’ll have multiple phone booths to do that as well.

What will the energy and atmosphere be like? 

By cultivating different groups and types of individuals in the Junction, we’re hoping the energy and atmosphere will be dynamic and very interactive. A lot of hustle and bustle on one floor and a little quieter on another floor. At one moment, you may come into the Junction and see an art performance happening, and then you can go upstairs and encounter a quieter, more subdued environment where small meetings are happening, and people are working on their computers. We aim to bring in creative aspects of what the university has to offer into the Junction’s environment by integrating with university programs – the arts, athletics and other departments.

Is there one thing about the Junction people will really love?  

Alongside industry partners, we are working on signature events that we are integrating with university programs and departments to talk about the innovations they see within their particular sectors. Imagine the new school of data science and society sitting alongside Apple or a Google clinical health group to talk about how they see the workforce of the future and how they are preparing students for the different innovations that industry is not only looking for… but is in need of.

So we’ll be looking to collaborate with schools anywhere from data science and society, all the way to journalism, arts and athletics — even looking at how the athletics department could offer innovation internships to athletes who typically may not be able to participate in internships because they’re mostly on the field. Now, with industry coming to Chapel Hill and participating in the Junction, those athletes will have the ability to have internship opportunities.

Innovate Carolina is working in collaboration with the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, the Town of Chapel Hill and the university as they work to energize the downtown district, balancing tradition with progress in downtown Chapel Hill as a vibrant place to work, live, play and shop.