DURHAM – Not so long ago, Tim Horan was an U.S. Army company commander with a tour of duty in Afghanistan under his belt.

But after eight years of service, the West Point graduate has traded in the battlefield for the boardroom, most recently serving as the chief operating officer for venture-backed startup, GoldenKey.

Now he’s hoping to steer other veterans like him along the same track.

Photo courtesy Tim Horan

AU’s Veteran-In-Residence Tim Horan (third from left) with fellow soldiers

“While many veterans would be well suited to transition into tech and entrepreneurship, it may be difficult to see the path to employability,” he told WRAL TechWire. “I hope to be able to help other transitioning service members have the same type of transition I did.”

As part of a new initiative with Capitol Broadcasting-owned American Underground (AU), Horan, 32, has taken on the role as Veteran-In-Residence (VIR), working on ways to inspire veterans to get into tech and entrepreneurship. The AU offers not only shared office space but also various programs and mentoring services to startups across the Triangle.

Among the program’s goals: supporting veterans launch new ventures, facilitating partnerships with state and federal players such as Bunker Labs, and starting up a company that is focused on veterans or social impact.

“In North Carolina, we have 20,000 service members transitioning out of the military each year. At American Underground, there are 275 startups alone. We want to build a talent bridge to help veterans get into tech and strengthen our community,” he said.

The program isn’t the first of its kind, but with the nation’s largest military installation around the corner in Fort Bragg, the potential impact is huge.

“If this is going to happen anywhere in the country, it should happen right here in the Triangle,” Horan said.

WRAL TechWire

Touring American Underground’s main campus (L-R)
Photo4: Carolina Small Business Development Fund’s
Joe Battle, Brian Abrahamson, Au’s Doug Speight, NC’s Military and Veterans Affairs Secretary Larry Hall, AU’s Veteran-In-Residence Tim Horan.

On Tuesday, he along with American Underground’s executive director Doug Speight hosted NC’s Military and Veterans Affairs Secretary Larry Hall, along with members of Carolina Small Business Development Fund, to introduce the program and discuss partnership opportunities.

“We’re doing a lot of efforts around the state to get veterans connected to technology companies, and this is another piece of that,” Secretary Hall told the group. “We’re hopeful we can collaborate.”

[Another program focused on helping veterans become entrepreneurs across North Carolina is Bunker Labs NC, which is based at The Frontier in Research Triangle Park.]

 Transitioning from army to startup

As a soldier, Horan never expected to end up working at a startup.

“At the time, I was interested in technology and startups on a spectator level, but I didn’t see a path to employability,” recalled Horan, who is originally from Burnt Hills Ballston Lake, New York and spent a significant part of his service stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

WRAL TechWire

Tim Horan

“Like a lot of many other service members, I had unique skills and experience but lacked the confidence and industry experience to translate those skills, especially in the world of technology.”

Then he learned about the U.S. Army’s Career Skills Program, which encourages soldiers to capitalize on training opportunities during transition.

Fortunately for Horan, he was still in touch with his former West Point professor, Tommy Sowers, who had recently founded GoldenKey, a Durham-based startup building a private real estate marketplace. Through him, Horan was able to secure an internship before leaving active duty in 2017. Not long after, he ended up running the operation.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t have had the chance to get my foot in the door,” he admitted.

For many service members, the skills acquired during time spent in the military will translate well in the startup world, Horan believes.

“In any position I served, what mattered most was the ability to collaborate and communicate in all directions Bringing people and processes together to a unified purpose and effort is valuable in the military and definitely valuable in a startup.”

Plans to double veteran-led startups at AU by 2020

 At present, American Underground has six veteran-led companies out of 275 startups that employ around 18 veterans.

The plan is to double that number within the next 24 months and build a sustainable pipeline of talent from Fort Bragg to the Triangle within three years, said its executive director Doug Speight.

“We strongly believe in lofty, audacious goals. That’s the fabric of American Underground, and I believe the community can rally behind this cause,” he said.

The tech hub is also the best placed to provide this infrastructure, he added, because of its commitment to “density and increasing collisions” to fellow founders and resources.

“We have three venture funds that are located in the building, and are active in this community. So having capital funds closely aligned with us is a key benefit.”

Even more so, it’s the access to other founders at different stages of development that are willing to help others along, which gives them the edge.

“We want to start planning programs, events and infrastructure that speak directly to transitioning vets that are making the jump back into society and want to get involved in the tech economy. American Underground is the perfect organization to facilitate this,” he said.