The economic development group NC IDEA will undergo a major transition under its new CEO Thom Ruhe, evolving into a private foundation.

While the Durham-based group will continue to offer hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants annually to startups, its mission will broaden with the goal of boosting entrepreneurship, Ruhe told WRAL TechWire in the first of a three-part Q&A.

(Note: The second part focuses on the state of entrepreneurship across North Carolina and private sector funding; the third focuses on Ruhe and how he intends to handle his new job when he assumes the role officially in March. Ruhe most recently worked at Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative and was formerly vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation.)

After spinning out a private venture capital fund (IDEA Fund Partners in 2007 under recently retired CEO Dave Rizzo, NC IDEA has focused primarily on its twice-annual grants. More than $4 million in grants have been awarded to more than 100 companies. The group also made a $250,000 grant to the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in 2014.

Now, the mission broadens, and Ruhe, who was named to the position on Feb. 4, explains the reasoning as well as the goals.

Our Q&A follows:

How did you hear about the position, and what intrigued you about it initially?

A friend of mine (Ted Zoeller at UNC) referred me to the position. I was initially intrigued with the position because I had learned NC IDEA had reorganized as a private foundation – something with which I have experience. This also made the position more attractive for reasons elaborated [in this Q&A]

What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the position and thus with NC IDEA?

Under the status of private foundation, the organization will have greater latitude to do more things.

In addition to managing the grant program, we can now consider other programatic activities. For example, the board and staff are currently considering ways to encourage more community engagement, expanding the capacity of existing entrepreneur service organizations, education and professional development services.

We will keep you posted on these activities as we firm up the details.

Another great opportunity for the organization, enabled by the conversion to a private foundation, we can help others (foundations or philanthropists) leverage their resources if they want to help strengthen the entrepreneurial potential of North Carolina.

Finally, as a private foundation not dependent on specific sources of funding, we can offer unbiased guidance to matters spanning economic policies affecting the birth and growth of new ventures, and partner with others based solely upon fit and shared ambition.

Conversely, what are the biggest challenges?

The short answer is: communication.

The biggest challenge in the near term will be communicating our desire to do more. Per the [previous] answer, we have a few new programmatic ambitions in the works, and articulating that broadly could be challenging.

Beyond that, advocating for a topic as broad as entrepreneurship can be challenging. It is a word that means different things to people. If we can however help people understand the economic and societal benefits of encouraging a more entrepreneurial culture in the state, we will have accomplished something.

Will the change of NC IDEA to a private foundation have any impact on programs and funding for startups?

I touched on this in question [earlier]. Specific to the point of funding for startups however, we will continue the grant program that has had such great success over the years. We will also consider ways to augment the program as circumstances, resources, and data may suggest – over time.

Were you aware of NC IDEA in your previous roles, and if so what were your impressions?

Yes, and quite favorable.

The Triangle as I am sure you are aware has become one of the nation’s biggest startup hubs. How can NC IDEA keep the action stirring?

The Triangle really is a special place, more so than I think some people realize. The collective of universities, incubators, accelerators, economic development organizations, mentors, and investors, would be the envy of most regions in the country.

Working with many of these vested groups, we will look to do more of the things that are working.

I would also remind people that the Triangle really is small (geographically speaking) and that the rising tide principle applies here.

If we can broker a little more cross-region or cross-state cooperation, that would be a beautiful thing.