What happens when you put 10 entrepreneurs together in a house located in the heart of Downtown Raleigh for nine months?
Innovation. Company building. Learning. Collaboration. Fun.
At least that’s what HQ Raleigh co-founders, Christopher Gergen, Jason Widen, Brooks Bell and Jesse Lipson hoped for when they created the ThinkHouse program back in 2013 with the mission to “surround young entrepreneurs with the tools, resources and community they need in order to help them scale their business venture,” says HQ Raleigh Director of Community Development Liz Tracy.
Tracy says that she and the ThinkHouse leaders have learned a lot through the past two years of the program. So much that they’re confident enough to open two additional houses this year in Durham and Greensboro, along with accepting a record 10 young people into the house in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights.
This year welcomes the first ThinkHouseU in Greensboro, just steps from the University of North Carolina—Greensboro, with eight student entrepreneurs from that campus and North Carolina A&T State University.
And the first TeachHouse—a collaboration with Duke University—will open in Durham this summer for seven graduating teaching fellows who want to put innovative ideas into action in K-12 public schools and connect with educational leaders, entrepreneurs and policy-makers both locally and nationally. All ThinkHouse and TeachHouse participants pay rent—the programming and networking is included.
The 2015-2016 ThinkHouse school year offers new beginnings for its fellows.
“We have spent the last three months gathering feedback and building out the best platform possible for the third class,” says Tracy. All the ThinkHouse residents will get together in August for a team-building retreat to kick off the new year of living and learning.
What’s distinct about this year’s class is that is the most diverse group yet, both in terms of fellows and ideas.
“Four of the 10 fellows are female entrepreneurs and we have concepts ranging from home produce preservation technology to a mobile app that connects travelers through group activities,” says Allyson Sutton, HQ Raleigh’s director of marketing. “We’re excited to see the collaboration and idea-share that happens with such a unique group.”
Fellows are selected based on their companies’ feasibility, scalability, current progress and their ability to execute, says Widen. How the fellows’ personalities fits into the house is also taken into account.
Meet the Raleigh fellows
One of the new fellows is Jared Childs, a North Carolina State University alumnus who describes himself as “a bit of a marketing nerd who loves brands that are disrupting their industry,” according to the ThinkHouse blog. His venture, Pitch & Primer, is a concept for a men’s retail store that brings locally and nationally made clothing and accessory brands and craft beer to downtown Raleigh.
Childs says that being a part of the ThinkHouse program is huge for Pitch & Primer’s progress—he’s quitting his full-time job to pursue the startup. As first-time, 23-year-old entrepreneurs, he and his team heavily rely on the knowledge of mentors and he believes that ThinkHouse is going to expand their network of advisors tenfold.
“Living with nine other entrepreneurs and having access to startups out of HQ Raleigh will provide an amazing support system and knowledge base,” Childs says.
Childs mentions that the great thing about Raleigh’s startup scene is entrepreneurial collaboration, and “when you have so many bright people working together towards a common goal, great things happen.”
Rebecca Holmes heard about the ThinkHouse program while exploring entrepreneurship at Duke University (through its Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs Program), and was drawn to the opportunity to build a business alongside other passionate people. Her venture, Ello Raw, makes healthy, guilt-free raw foods that are easily accessible to everyone. The products contain no preservatives, fillers or fake ingredients and provide a healthy alternative to sweet desserts. She recently met a $7,000 funding goal on Indiegogo to add retailers and expand the business.
She believes ThinkHouse will help her achieve her goal of making real, unadulterated food available to all and that she will be able to push herself and grow along with her startup.
“I’m most excited to be in a place where I can dedicate myself 100 percent to my passion and my work,” she says.
David LiCause will bring his travel app idea to the house. Broke Compass, currently in beta, allows travelers to connect with one another while they’re on the road through group tourist activities. The recent UNC graduate is enthusiastic about getting to work with the founders of ThinkHouse, along with his peers.
“Running an early-stage startup is an emotional roller coaster,” he says. “Having a network of other smart and passionate entrepreneurs will be a great resource.”
Here are the rest of the new entrepreneurs:
Ryan O’Donnell’s web and mobile app, EmployUs, builds software that helps companies refer professionals they know to hiring companies and earn referral bonuses with every hire. O’Donnell has gotten a lot of attention—two of his companies took off during his senior year at NC State. EmployUs graduated from the Citrix Startup Accelerator last winter and won a coveted NC IDEA grant. More on EmployUs here.
Colin Reaves and Michael Pham, of Insite Ventures, plan to help retailers with their site selection when picking new locations and help commercial brokers fill vacancies by using a combination of spatial and retailer data, and statistics.
Kyle Sheats, a recent NC State graduate, started Run Bucks, a mobile app that rewards exercise with activity points that can be redeemed for prizes in the app’s marketplace.
Kate Van Vorst founded The Raleigh Arts Collective, a cultural hub and maker-space that supports innovative thinking and design.
Ivonna Dumanyan’s product, BioMetrix, is the first sports technology wireless platform to map and monitor your form, instabilities and asymmetries in real time. Dumanyan is a senior at Duke University and has taken advantage of all kinds of resources on campus. We did a profile on her company this week.
Allison Fairbank’s Fresh Box is the first home food packaging system that safely preserves food up to five times longer while maintaining the taste, texture and nutrients of your food, helping users to eat healthier, save money and reduce waste. Fairbank developed the company as a student at NC State University and participated in Groundwork Labs last fall.
The ThinkHouse experience so far
The 2014-2015 past fellows say the ThinkHouse experience has helped guide the direction of their companies and careers.
One of those graduates is Nick Cioffi, president and co-founder of Raleigh-born Bulletin Mobile, an app that allows users—such as students, employees and associates—to receive notifications and messages about time-sensitive material. It also allows administrators to be able to see which users receive, open and view their messages.
One of Bulletin Mobile’s biggest successes was its pilot launch at NC State, providing a fully scalable platform for education administrators to send mobile notifications directly to students’ smartphones.
Cioffi says the ThinkHouse community was the biggest reward of the program.
“Meeting powerful and genuinely good individuals that wanted to see the startup culture in Raleigh grow was important to me,” he says. He also expanded his network in a really meaningful way.
He says, “I think a lot of people approach networking the wrong way—to climb the ladder. It’s more important to make friendships and be who you are. And opportunities come along with those things.”
Michael Hoy took away a different experience from ThinkHouse.
The co-founder and CEO of BoomboxFM, which sends free music from undiscovered musicians straight to subscribers’ email inboxes, says that ThinkHouse helped him validate his idea and feel a part of the Triangle startup community.
As a native of Washington DC, Hoy found it challenging to integrate into the Triangle’s startup ecosystem, but his time at ThinkHouse let him “link up with a community of mentors who helped take BoomboxFM to the next level.” He was accepted into the coveted The Startup Factory program earlier this year, graduating in May.
“I owe 75 percent of my professional network to the ThinkHouse program,” says Hoy.
Read more about the 2014-2015 fellows in this story from last year.