Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of WRAL TechWire’s exclusive “new normal series” stories about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Research Triangle region’s startup ecosystem.

CHAPEL HILL – UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Duke University, Shaw University and other institutions have adapted to the needs of students and their startups as the economic and health impact of COVID-19 shut down on-campus classes and led to an increased need to help entrepreneurs adapt to a “new normal” both academically and economically. At UNC, virtual and coworking have taken on new prominence.

“The future of work will be driven by a movement toward convergence,” said Michelle Bolas, associate vice chancellor for innovation strategy and programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  “People with diverse skill sets and areas of expertise will need to converge to work together on cross-disciplinary teams to solve complex problems.”

The problems we face, both now with a global pandemic, and in the future, said Bolas, “are far too complicated to be solved by a single perspective or approach.”

The future of work thus relies on a network of people, working in concert, whether virtually or in physical locations, to find solutions, said Bolas.  Success will hinge on coworking facilities and virtual service hubs where all types of innovators will join together to solve problems, said Bolas.  “We will be doing a lot of experimentation over the next year to 18 months, and living out what we teach our future entrepreneurial leaders.”

“One of the things we saw, almost immediately after COVID-19,” said Vickie Gibbs, executive director of the Entrepreneurship Center at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a desire for UNC-Chapel Hill to provide resources for entrepreneurs and business owners, regardless of whether they’re active students or alumni.  “We can be a beacon for our community,” said Gibbs, noting that the university and its administrators already possessed that desire.”

Also helping boost startups are several coworking and startup hubs in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

WRAL TechWire graphic by Jason Parker

To help further, the Entrepreneurship Center convened a virtual series, Navigating the Great Pause, said Gibbs, that provided information on a wide range of subjects, and an environment in which entrepreneurs, students, and startup teams could ask questions.

That was critical to a successful program, and to supporting entrepreneurs, said Gibbs. “Especially because coworking spaces aren’t operating as they were, because there wasn’t that natural community to go to.”

So how have startup and coworking communities in Chapel Hill and Carrboro responded during the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and what does the future of work look like for the physical locations that connect college and university students and alumni to programs, mentors, and technology?

The Resilience of College & University Student Entrepreneurs

“Startups have been and will continue to be drivers of economic and social impact,” Bolas told WRAL TechWire.  “As startups pivot their offerings, and new ventures emerge to take on problems that weren’t on the pre-pandemic radar, university-based startup programs will play an even greater role.”

Colleges and universities that develop programming to guide early-stage companies toward financing, assist in the writing and submission to grant funding opportunities, and serving as connectors to angel investors, mentors, and venture capital firm will be well-positioned to address a shifting need amongst student entrepreneurs, members of the faculty and their teams, and researchers seeking to commercialize technology, said Bolas.  “University startup programs will also be instrumental in terms of providing physical spaces that address business and health requirements,” she said.  “Helping companies find the right kind of spaces, both wet lab and business accelerators, will be immensely important.”

Prior to the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had already expanded its range of academic, departmental, and partnership-based programs aimed to increase access to flexible workspace, program based on entrepreneurial principles, and resources such as mentorship and funding.

According to Bolas, as of January 2020, a total of 707 startups with an affiliation to UNC-CH which, in aggregate, have raised $15.2 billion since 1958, and 529 of those ventures were still active at the turn of the new year.

“When it became clear that a significant disruption was imminent in late February,” said Bolas, the university took action, and with the leadership of Innovate Carolina and local, regional, and national partners, addressed three specific areas that would allow the institution to continue to meet the needs of student, faculty, and staff entrepreneurs.

Setting stage for new normal

First, said Bolas, the university moved to ensure its life science laboratories could operate with the resources, access, and infrastructure to develop potential COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines.

Second, said Bolas, the university engaged its affiliated startups to provide direct support from its network of investors, strategic partners, and experienced entrepreneurs.

Finally, said Bolas, the university funded students and supported them in securing virtual internship opportunities within startups as an April poll of employers from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) showed that half of all employers were planning to reduce the duration of internships or remove them altogether.  As a part of this effort, the university also assisted in transitioning student entrepreneurs interested in pursuing their own ventures to online-based support programs, including the now-virtual Launch Chapel Hill Summer Accelerator program, which launched on May 26, among many other virtual trainings, coaching opportunities, and support-based programs.

The transition to virtual programming demonstrates the presence of a key trait shared among students and entrepreneurs, said Gibbs in an interview.  “I’ve been really surprised and impressed at how resilient our students are,” she said.  “Resilience is a key trait for entrepreneurs, who are always working in uncertain environments with limited resources.”

New normal requires …

It’s clear that it is now more important than ever, said Gibbs, that institutions of higher education teach students how to be adaptable, flexible, open-minded, and creative.

“There are a number of studies around the future of work,” said Velvet Nelson, program director at Launch Chapel Hill.  “What they all agree on is that the jobs of the future are highly adaptive and require critical thinking, unstructured problem solving, and the ability to make decisions effectively, all within a world with a high degree of uncertainty.”

“Although students had their lives disrupted and needed to adjust to virtual classes while moving off-campus and readjusting summer plans, student entrepreneurs and ventures have not slowed down,” said Bolas.  “Student entrepreneurs have adjusted quite well, and we think this reflects their mindsets for adapting and pivoting quickly when scenarios change.”

Other stories in the New Normal series

Duke, NCSU, Triangle universities join UNC in adapting startup programs for ‘new normal’

Pandemic means challeges, opportunities for RTP’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Suburban Wake County startup communities adapting to new normal

The new normal: A different Raleigh-Cary entrepreneurial community takes shape at coworking hubs

Triangle’s entrepreneurial economy gears up to lead in the new normal

Doom is not part of vocabulary in Durham’s startup community despite COVID-19