This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.
A pupusa food truck raising money for undocumented students. A nutritional company packaging healthy frozen meals for low-income populations. An augmented reality game energizing young children during extended hospital stays.
The one thing each of these ventures has in common? They all started in Chapel Hill, thanks to the Innovate Carolina initiative.
While the Triangle has a strong reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in particular, has been making a concerted effort to encourage students, faculty and even community members to pursue their creative ventures. In fact, the institution was recently ranked by Reuters as the sixth Most Innovative University in the World, rising three spots since last year’s ranking and preceded only by major names like Stanford, MIT and Harvard.
One of the main vehicles that drives this push for innovation is UNC’s university-wide initiative, Innovate Carolina, a program born out of the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development. The initiative offers resources like workshops, incubators, internships and grants to students, faculty and the community to create an environment of growth, collaboration and creativity.
Judith Cone, who started at UNCa little more than 10 years ago, has been a leading force in furthering the mission of the initiative.
“I was hired by Holden Thorp [former chancellor of UNC] to be the chief innovation officer, and it was the first time the university had had such a position,” Cone recalled. “Thorp said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I want to promote this culture that’s intentional — one of innovation and entrepreneurship. I don’t think we should have a center or anything like that, because the minute we do, we won’t be seen as a neutral party that can support everyone.’ So that’s what we did.”
For Cone, she didn’t want certain students, faculty or even the community to feel as if they couldn’t take advantage of the program’s resources. That’s why, under her direction, Innovate Carolina — also referred to by its official title of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development — has expanded to include a plethora of resources.
These resources include the Carolina Angel Network, which matches UNC-Chapel Hill alumni with portfolio companies to provide guidance and investment funds; Launch Chapel Hill, a startup accelerator sponsored by UNC, the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County which offers tools, support, and knowledge to promising business ventures; and 1789, a co-working space on Franklin Street that encourages innovation, entrepreneurship, and collaboration.
To date, UNC startups have generated $1.7 billion in total capital in Orange County, and there have been 663 total UNC-affiliated startups — 500 of which are still active and 201 of which are headquartered in the county. Additionally, UNC startups raised $13.6 billion in annual revenue as of July 2019, and in 2018 alone, they employed more than 2,600 people.
While UNC is understandably the focal point of Innovate Carolina, the reach of the program goes well-beyond campus. In fact, Cone and her team have made it a priority to incorporate the community at large whenever possible, whether it be encouraging their own ideas or helping them leverage their experience for other young entrepreneurs.
“There are a lot of people in the community that want to get involved and help students. There are existing entrepreneurs who have expertise and experience that can be leveraged, so in those cases, I look to get them involved in our incubator and co-working space, 1789,” said Sheryl Waddell, director of the Innovate Carolina Global Network. “It’s right on Franklin Street, so it is purposely not on campus and within the community, but still accessible to students.”
It’s not just the Chapel Hill community that Innovate Carolina promotes collaboration with, however. While Duke University and North Carolina State University may be rivals on the football field and basketball court, all three schools find common ground when it comes to promoting and furthering innovation in the Triangle area.
“If you can have that collective build of infrastructure around the startup community coming from three major universities, that’s pretty powerful,” Wadell said. “When you collaborate, you create opportunity, and it’s this perpetual circle of ability to push things forward and recognize innovation happening throughout the Triangle.”
“We all celebrate each other’s successes,” Waddell continued. “For example, Raleigh just opened up a makerspace, and we were all there to help them celebrate that success. Being behind them, celebrating with them, that also creates that collaboration of opportunities.”
Innovate Carolina has birthed a number of notable startups that have gone on to find national success and recognition — but many have focused their efforts on making a difference in the Chapel Hill community. For example, Cecilia Polonca, a UNC alum, created a food truck called So Good Pupusas, and with a portion of her proceeds, she provides scholarships to undocumented high school seniors that have been accepted into universities.
Another notable venture, birthed from one of the many workshops hosted by Innovate Carolina, is Adventure Squad. Created by Dr. Richard Hobbs, Steven King and Betsy Mann, the augmented reality app aims to increase physical activity for hospital patients ages 8 to 13. Not only was Innovate Carolina able to help with the inception of the idea, but they’ve also helped make local connections that could further increase the reach of the app.
“It’s like Pokemon Go. You take a smart device and run all over the hospital, and there are QR codes on the wall. Now, everybody’s running around the hospital — the staff, visitors, patients,” Cone enthusiastically explained. “We said, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if Epic Games would get involved?’ Because this could be put out through all hospitals in America, to start with. So we made that introduction, and they’re talking about it further.”
This collaboration with the community is a key factor in the success of Innovate Carolina. In addition to keeping relationships up with alumni, Launch Chapel Hill specifically also meets monthly with the mayor and economic development team, bringing harmonization and alignment between the chamber, the town, the county, the university and the community at large.
Additionally, the team hosts an Innovation Showcase in April every year, which celebrates innovations made by both the university and the community, typically drawing in about 500 attendees and more than 100 investors.
Moving forward, Cone and Waddell both hope to continue pushing for innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration in the Chapel Hill community and beyond — and they already have several new projects in the pipeline. Throughout their journey, the support of the community has proven invaluable.
“Tremendous ideas are born in Chapel Hill, and they affect the world. We have an alignment between the government, the university, the citizens and the talent pool here to do this great work of moving ideas forward, and that’s kind of unusual to get such an alignment,” Cone said. “It’s a very exciting time to see the Chamber having a goal that matches ours, to see strategic plans match, to see the town and the county government match — that is a recipe for success.”
This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.