With the coronavirus pandemic prompting social distancing and other preventative measures across the globe, several organizations serving North Carolina’s startup and tech communities are moving their programming online.

As TechWire chronicled last week, a huge wave of conferences, panel events, meetups and other social gatherings are canceled or postponed in March and April as organizers heed public health guidelines for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

For example: Venture Cafe Winston-Salem, which supports startups in the Triad, moved its Thursday Gathering series online earlier this month (pictured above). Charlotte coworking space Packard Place hosted its first virtual Public House event last week. And the upcoming Raleigh Hardware Cup pitch competition will be livestreamed on April 1.

These three organizations join the dozens of now-digital events across North Carolina, including 1 Million Cups RTP, RIoT, LaunchBio, Seed20 OnStage, Mountain BizWorks and STEM RTP’s Science and Math Fest.

To get an idea of how startup support organizations are handling the new COVID-19 reality, we asked the leaders of Venture Cafe Winston-Salem, Packard Place and Raleigh Hardware Cup to share how they’re transitioning their programs online, what tools or software they’re using, how their audience is responding and what advice they have for other organizations. Interviews are edited for brevity:

Q&A: Venture Cafe Winston-Salem Executive Director Karen Barnes

Karen Barnes is the executive director of Venture Cafe Winston-Salem. The organization moved its Thursday Gathering series online in mid-March. She shared a bit about how it’s going so far: 

Why did you decide to switch to an online format? Had you been considering web-based programming before the coronavirus pandemic?

As part of a global network, we’d been looking for more opportunities to digitally engage with our partner locations. But it had mostly been a theoretical conversation until about three weeks ago when our Tokyo and Sydney locations had close calls with COVID-19 exposure. We were on the phone every day with our global colleagues discussing and debating how to handle this new reality. Our signature event is an in-person Gathering – how does that translate to a virtual environment?

What was the transition like? What tools or software programs are you using?

The transition has been smooth so far. We’re using Zoom for Virtual Venture Cafe – it allows us to offer multiple sessions just like we would with an in-person Thursday Gathering. What we’re most excited about is the ability for our NC community members to access programming from other Venture Cafe sites as well. There’s a global community space where you can connect with other entrepreneurs and innovators from Rotterdam to Tokyo to Boston.

How did your first Thursday Gathering go two weeks ago?

Our first Virtual Venture Cafe went well. We had 109 people attend and more than 1600 around the world. That’s down from our usual numbers, but also higher than I expected. As this new reality sinks in, I expect our numbers to climb. So far I’ve heard several people who don’t usually attend say this allows them a chance to participate. We’re hoping to reach some new people here and introduce our awesome local entrepreneurs and ecosystem to the rest of the world.

What kind of response are you getting from your community?

We’re getting a very positive response from our community. We’ve built a strong following of more than 6,500 people in the last three years who are committed to ideas, innovation, investing back in our community, and to supporting one another. Although this is a bewildering time for everyone, entrepreneurs understand, perhaps better than some others, that agility matters. Speed matters. The ability to change your business model quickly is part of our daily lives. This new COVID-19 era will test all of us in ways we’re just starting to understand, but I believe that entrepreneurs have the right mindset to help navigate our society by choosing to see and solve these new problems. By using technology in inventive ways like telehealth.

When I look around at how our legacy systems, like the school systems, that have pivoted to distance learning and ensuring our at-risk kids and families are fed, it’s really encouraging. We’re living in an innovation lab every single day now. And how we respond and create now will have long-lasting impacts. This universal disruption has the potential to produce ideas and practices that will influence our society beyond the outbreak.

What advice would you give to other organizations that may be considering this alternative course of delivery for networking/seminars/panels/etc.?

Deliver strong content, don’t just jump on the virtual bandwagon. Understand and maximize the virtual user experience and tailor your offerings to a digital platform. For instance, a panel discussion may be harder on a virtual platform because people tend to talk over one another. That means you need a strong facilitator to keep things on track. Make sure people have ways to interact, not just passively watch another talking head webinar. Active engagement is key.

Q&A: Packard Place Co-Founder Dan Roselli

Charlotte coworking space Packard Place runs a popular monthly networking series called Public House. The event moved online starting last Wednesday, bringing in over 85 attendees. 

Packard Place co-founder Dan Roselli put together a virtual event guide for folks interested in moving their events online. In a Q&A with TechWire, he shared more about the experience so far:

Why did you decide to switch to an online format? Had you considered web-based programming before the coronavirus pandemic?

We have always livestreamed Packard Place Public House on Facebook Live, but we thought a Zoom meeting gave us more interaction and the ability to have a virtual panel discussion.

What was the transition like? What tools/software are you using?

Zoom is the tool we have chosen. Their large group meeting functionality is great. We are moving our 700-plus person Fintech Generations conference in June to a 100% virtual event (unless in-person gatherings are allowed by then). We are doing this because we feel very strongly about the virtual vs cancel trade off. We must move forward as an entrepreneurial ecosystem, as a country, and as an economy.

How’s it going so far? 

We just had a huge success in our ‘virtual’ Packard Place Public House on March 18 with over 85 attendees.  It went really well and the community rallied around the idea of virtual vs cancel. It was one of our most popular Packard Place Public House events ever. We had a number of folks who lived across the state that never come attend and even some folks with mobility issues that were thrilled we went virtual.

What kind of response are you getting from your community?

The community response has been tremendous. Entrepreneurs want to take care and get shit done – not be helpless. Our country needs the innovation, drive and tenacity of entrepreneurs and we need it now.

Q&A with Kayce Karlo of AlphaLab Gear’s Raleigh Hardware Cup

Kayce Karlo is the lead coordinator of the AlphaLab Gear Hardware Cup tour, an international pitch competition for early-stage hardware startups. The Raleigh Hardware Cup will be livestreamed on April 1. Six semifinalists—Altis Biosystems​, Cell X Technologies​, Induction Food Systems​, Inirv Labs​, Intake​ and Kalia Health—will compete for $3,000 in cash and prizes, and the chance to win $50,000 at the international finals in May. The competition is presented in partnership with RIoT, NC IDEA, HQ Raleigh, Innovate Raleigh and the Small Business and Technology Development Center.

Earlier this month, AlphaLab Gear announced its decision to move forward with a livestreamed-only version of the Raleigh Hardware Cup. In our Q&A, Kayce Karlo shared a bit about why AlphaLab Gear decided to move the tour online, how this decision reflects the organization’s mission and how other events can incorporate their audience in virtual programming. 


Why did you decide to move the competition online? With other events canceling or postponing, what prompted you to go a different route?

We are actually in the middle of our U.S. tour. We ran our first three U.S. regional competitions—DC, Pittsburgh and Chicago—already in-person in February and early March. Additionally, all of our international partners held their competitions earlier this year. When we were faced with the decision to adapt the competitions to our new reality, the thought of canceling or even postponing our events never crossed our minds.

Our team’s main focus is always, “How can we support our startups and the broader hardware community?” And we felt that continuing with our competition is the best way for us to do exactly that. More than ever, hardware startups need cash to help them move forward.

What tools/software will you be using to livestream the presentations?

There are so many great tools out there, we’re working through tech rehearsals today and tomorrow on different platforms to find the best solution for us. We’ll definitely be incorporating social media into our plan: We’re @alphalabgear on all platforms. Our first virtual Hardware Cup event is the Boston Regionals, which will be held on March 25 at 6 p.m. The Raleigh Hardware Cup is on April 1 at 6 p.m.

Around how many viewers are you expecting? 

Although we have livestreamed all of our Hardware Cup competitions in the past few years, we cannot give an estimate as we have not yet held a completely virtual event before. Our regional events usually see an audience of around 200 people, and our livestreams have been very successful as an additional tool for people to view the competitions during and post-event.

Community participation is important to our events. At our live events we incorporate the full audience by having the attendees select the “Audience Favorite,” so, in addition to holding the event online and announcing the winner at the end of the event, viewers will be able to cast their votes via TallySpace for our “Audience Favorite” award. The voting polls will be open for 24 hours from the end of the event, and the winner will be announced when the polls close. The Audience Favorite winner receives a $50 online gift card for the “fuel” of their choice (Starbucks, their favorite local coffee shop, etc.) and a manufacturing consultation with one of the most active early-stage investors in the country, Innovation Works.

How will the judging process work? How can they cast votes? Will they be present in-person?

The startups will present their pitches live in front of a panel of judges via the software platform we decide to use. The presentations are three minutes, strictly timed by the moderator, immediately followed by a question and answer portion from our panel of judges. After all the companies compete, the judges will deliberate and decide the winner.

What advice would you give to other organizations that may be considering this alternative course of delivery for their events?

Think outside of the box, you have the opportunity to make some changes to your event that you may have been thinking about but haven’t had the chance to, now is your time. Incorporate your audience and keep them engaged—we’re doing this with our Audience Favorite.

Don’t forget your mission, for us, our mission is to support our startups and the broader hardware community so everything we do connects to that goal.


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