CHAPEL HILL – Launch Chapel Hill is gearing up to send off its 13th cohort of entrepreneurs to embark on their next stage of startup growth. After spending 16 weeks developing their business model and market strategy with mentors in the accelerator, nine early-stage startups will finish off the program by pitching their products and services to a virtual audience next Wednesday.

The spring 2020 cohort was the first under Launch Chapel Hill’s new director, Velvet Nelson, who entered her role in December right as the selection committee was deciding on the current class. Nelson’s predecessor, Amy Linnane, stepped down in late-2019 to take a new position as managing director of experiential programs at Duke University Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

Nelson easily transitioned into her new role leading Launch Chapel Hill, bringing more than 10 years of experience within Charlotte’s startup community. She previously worked as program manager for the Queen City Fintech startup accelerator, where she handled programming, event management and communication with mentors. Before that, she co-founded edtech startup, ProctorFree, and raised several rounds of funding through private angel groups and VC firms, in addition to an NC IDEA SEED grant in 2013. Nelson also previously worked at Huntersville edtech startup EverBlue Training Institute.

As Launch Chapel Hill’s spring 2020 program wraps up this week, WRAL TechWire caught up with Nelson to discuss her new role, her observations of the 13th cohort, how alumni companies are pivoting during the COVID-19 pandemic, and her vision for the future of Launch Chapel Hill.

Note: This interview is edited for brevity.

  • How did you end up at Launch Chapel Hill and how is the job going so far? 

When my husband got a position here in the Triangle, I tapped into my network and started talking to people about our eventual move from Charlotte. I saw the job for Launch Chapel Hill posted on the UNC website and thought it was a fantastic fit given my background. While going through the interview process, I realized it was the perfect job for me.

I officially started in December as they were selecting the spring 2020 cohort. It has been fantastic so far. It’s been fun going through this first cohort to experience what the program is about and building off of what Amy Linnane and Dina Rousset [my predecessors] already did a fantastic job of doing.

  • What about the spring 2020 class stands out to you? What have you observed as they’ve gone through the program?

It has been a very dynamic group; they’re very intelligent and incredibly hard-working. They’ve had to deal with a bit of a crisis in the middle of this accelerator, and they’ve just adapted better than I could have ever imagined. When we first moved into this program, there was so much face-to-face interaction with mentors, as they were working out of our coworking space with the ability to network. All of that changed in March. Since then, they’ve worked even harder to make those connections and really immerse themselves in the Triangle startup community. They’re super intelligent and adaptable, and they’re working around the clock to get their ideas off the ground.

  • How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting operations?

We started moving things to a virtual format around March 13. Luckily, our companies were very flexible and eager to adapt to the change. Our coworking space is still accessible to members through a key fob, though it’s not necessarily open to the public. Separate from that, our accelerator went completely virtual. All of our programming was moved online, we ramped up our meetups so we could connect on Zoom to keep tabs on one another and make sure our founders are meeting with their mentors. It’s been a pretty easy transition. The biggest challenge has been the transition for some of our founders who have kids—they have to be teachers at home and run companies now, so that’s been somewhat of a challenge for them.

Our startups are also figuring out how to pivot if they need to, while also trying to navigate SBA loans, PPP programs and homeschooling kids, all at once. Our ventures are in that fun process of scaling and growing, so while it’s not a fun situation to be in, it does give them a level of resilience that I’m sure they can appreciate later down the road.

  • Speaking of pivoting, have any startups in the spring cohort shifted their business model due to COVID-19?

Our ventures are in a position where they’re just starting to grow and figure out their business models. They haven’t had to completely pivot, but they’ve learned how to pivot in reacting to these changes. Some were raising money, so they’ve had to adapt and adjust to the fact that they might not be able to close rounds of funding right now. So while they haven’t had to pivot their business model, they’ve pivoted how they tackle what they’re going to do to grow their business.

  • Have any Launch Chapel Hill alumni startups pivoted during this time?

Yes, actually. Growga, a company in our fall cohort, pivoted to offer online yoga and meditation sessions for remote workers and their families to take a break during work hours. Another startup is IndyCare, from our 11th cohort, which has also pivoted to offer text-based COVID-19 screening, virtual patients visits, at-home flu testing and prescription delivery services.

  • What’s your vision for Launch Chapel Hill for the rest of this year? Any new programming in the works?

Our goals for 2020 and beyond are threefold. First, we want to continue to move forward with the accelerator. That’s something that’s really worked well for us, so we want to continue to shape that and make it the best it can be.

Then, we’ll also be adding additional programming within the next 12-18 months. We’re still working on what exactly that looks like, but the plan is to create new programs that are available to entrepreneurs who may not be able to participate in the full-time, 16-week program. So whether it’s a boot camp-style accelerator or workshops on customer discovery and prototyping, this new program would be focused on helping people start their business even if they aren’t quite ready to completely immerse themselves in the full-time program for four months.

Our third goal is to focus on bringing in sponsors. We’re completely supported by the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County and UNC. While they’ll continue to partner with us and support us, we’ve had so much success with our partners, who help our startups with things like human resources, accounting and legal services. We want those companies to come in and play a larger role at Launch to become more ingrained in our culture—working out of Launch to help entrepreneurs solve their problems in a natural setting.

  • Are you working on selecting startups for your next cohort? 

Yes, our summer program typically includes 10 startups, all exclusively led by UNC students. But this summer we’re doing it a bit differently: Our traditional 10-spot class has already been selected, but we recently opened our application period again to four additional companies that are completely focused on the COVID-19 crisis.

That application closed last week and we’re doing interviews this week. The four startups need to have some type of product or service that’s either fighting COVID-19 in some way or helping address an issue that has arisen in response to COVID-19.