Editor’s note: Across Winston-Salem and Greensboro, a startup ecosystem continues to grow with more new ventures, coworking spaces and programs with the goal of turning new ventures into profitable enterprises. In the first of a multi-part series focusing on North Carolina’s startup ecosystem – with three reports focusing on the Triad – WRAL TechWire’s Jason Parker provides an in-depth look at what one leader describes as “mega momentum.”
WINSTON-SALEM – The Piedmont-Triad is a dynamic region with a history of manufacturing. For many years, the story of economic growth and subsequent economic decline was a story of the manufacturing, textile, and tobacco industries. Comprised of multiple networks across three cities and two primary counties, the region is undergoing an intentional shift toward innovation and the emerging knowledge economy.
“This is a city that is reforming itself,” says Eric Tomlinson, chief innovation officer of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and president of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter based in Winston-Salem. “We’ve moved from an emphasis on manufacturing and large industry to one focused on entrepreneurial behavior and capturing innovative ideas.”
This fundamental shift in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County emerged in the last decade, and has accelerated in recent years, says Tomlinson. By one measure, Winston-Salem ranked as the No. 17 top city in America to start a business. And Winston-Salem is not alone in its aspirations to grow an innovation economy.
Just 30 miles east, community leaders in Greensboro are working to curate an environment that fosters creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial growth.
Greensboro’s Chamber of Commerce supports Launch Greensboro, an organization that runs a variety of programs focused on enhancing the small business economy citywide. One of their programs, LaunchLab, serves as an accelerator that provides a platform for education and support to entrepreneurs focused on expanding their businesses.
This was an outgrowth of the Triad Startup Lab, managed by Joel Bennett for the Greensboro Chamber in 2014 (the City of Greensboro provided $200,000 across two years of funding to operate the program). After three years, four of those initial companies have collectively raised more than $1 million in follow-on funding, according to Bennett.
“I really love seeing the mega-momentum trending across the Triad,” says Bennett. “We are on to something big.”
The startup scene
Experienced entrepreneurs are helping fuel momentum.
FlureeDB— a scalable, blockchain cloud database—launched November 9th, 2017 for public beta use. The company, led by Flip Filipowski, the former CEO and COO of Cullinet (the largest software company of the 1980s) and founder and CEO of Platinum Technology, Inc., which sold for $4 billion. His cofounder, Brian Platz, previously co-founded SilkRoad Technology and serves on the Board of Directors for Fuel 50.
“The infrastructure and vibe of the city has taken off so quickly it is hard to believe,” says Platz.
The Triad also just put the wraps on their eighth Triad Startup Weekend. With more than 70 participants and 30 ideas pitched on Friday night, it was the highest attended Triad Startup Weekend yet.
After the initial pitches, eight teams formed, and by the end of the weekend, Circle Up, a marketplace app that facilitates fundraising by giving a cut to schools or causes, took top place, advances to the regional competition, and was awarded up to $15,000 worth of in-kind donations from local sponsors. Inclock, which pitched a color-changing ink that automatically updates expiration labels for perishable foods came in third place, and Rent Assured, an app that was designed to take uncertainty out of landlord-tenant relationships and led by Shrivastav, finished in second place.
Yet community leaders like Platz across the Triad understand the challenge of building a robust entrepreneurial economy.
“The community surrounding entrepreneurship is definitely growing,” says Platz, “just not as quickly.”
Still, it could be better.
“The current state of the startup economy in the Triad is ‘it’s okay — we’re getting there’,” says Sara Pilling, director of operations for HQ Greensboro. According to Pilling, while progress has been made, there is a lot more that has to be done to make the Triad more competitive.
More new initiatives
Joel Bennett plans to launch a new initiative in December 2017, “Tech Slam and Eggs.” Similar to a 1MillionCups breakfast pitch, “Slam and Eggs” will feature three startups that have functional software applications. “No PowerPoints allowed!” says Bennett. His partner in this effort is Bobbie Shrivastav, who just took the entrepreneurial plunge and quit her full time job to focus on startup Docsmore.
There’s building energy and momentum, says Bennett. It’s this momentum that Karen Barnes witnessed each day during a four-month “listening tour” to understand how to deploy Venture Café in the region. She is its executive director.
“Other North Carolina locations get more attention that we do,” says Barnes, “but I’d put our ecosystem up against any other region in the state and challenge them to find more energy, more activity, more cooperation, and more pride than we’re building here.”
NEXT: A closeup look at Greensboro