At 22 years old, Dean Bundschu
was promoted to platoon leader in the U.S. Army making him responsible for training and leading 40 soldiers.
By 30, he was commanding a 122-soldier organization with only a couple months to prepare the entire unit for combat in the Iraq War.
Leadership was one skill he didn’t need to be taught after leaving the military and founding his first company. But what he did need were the mentors, customers, partners and investors who could help make his venture successful, and the tactical business-building tips typically offered by an accelerator or incubator.
Those entities didn’t exist back when Bundschu launched college sports recruiting startup PrepChamps in 2006. And though programs and incubators are prevalent today, they still haven’t been targeted to the men and women exiting the military and transitioning back to civilian life each year.
One national organization is changing that, and Bundschu is on board to bring it to the Triangle next year, in hopes of making entrepreneurship a viable option for the 763,000 military veterans in North Carolina.
Bundschu, a business consultant who raised $2.2 million and led a 20-person team at PrepChamps before selling it in 2009, is the new executive director for the Raleigh-Durham chapter of Bunker Labs, a Chicago-based organization opening physical startup accelerators in cities around the U.S. along with online entrepreneurship education tailored to soldiers and veterans.
When Bunker Labs opens at Research Triangle Park’s The Frontier on December 8, it’ll be the 11th U.S. chapter formed since the organization started in June 2014. An application period is open now to recruit 15 startups for an inaugural cohort kicking off in February.
The fast ramp-up of Bunker Labs is due to support from the U.S. Armed Forces and organizations like Deloitte, Windtrust Financial, Comcast and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, as well as recognition of the economic opportunity in supporting veteran-owned businesses and promoting entrepreneurship.
The 2.5 million vet-owned businesses in the U.S. represent 10 percent of the nation’s GDP.
And yet less than six percent of veterans start businesses today, says Bundschu, down from 12.5 percent in 1996 and nearly 50 percent after World War Two.
While the military is much smaller today, Bundschu says the dropping figures are largely a result of more emphasis on post-military education through the GI Bill and on corporate work. He saw that first hand as an employee at Orion International, the Raleigh-based firm that places military vets into jobs after their service.
Bundschu believes Bunker Labs will be especially important in North Carolina, a state with one of the highest veteran populations, bases for every branch of government and a large National Guard presence. There’s also a large community of vet-owned businesses—87,500 with a collective $53 billion in annual revenue.
“If you combine all of the advantages the state has and the vet population and vet business community, it’s a perfect location for what I hope becomes one of the top destinations for veterans looking to become entrepreneurs,” Bundschu says.
Bundschu and his PrepChamps co-founders Hal Fischer and Jay Kerr originally planned to launch an online education curriculum for the state's military veterans through another nonprofit called Startup Veterans. But when he met Bunker Labs founder Todd Connor at the Patriot Boot Camp in Chapel Hill in July, he saw a better opportunity for the Triangle in using the Bunker model. Startup Veterans still plans to host national events to build awareness about entrepreneurship for vets—the first big event is coming soon in San Diego.
Bunker Labs will occupy 1,800 square feet on the ground floor of The Frontier. It’ll have three cohorts of 15 “entrepreneurs-in-residence” each year, with four months of programming and two months of transition time offered to each company. Bundschu says the companies will overlap with the cohorts before and after them, in hopes they’ll develop even more connections in the community.
So far, nine companies have been selected to begin in February. Most attended a VetStart event kicking off the new effort in September.
Though curriculum will be provided by the Chicago headquarters, the program will include many local partners. Bunker will spend every Thursday off site, visiting local startup campuses like American Underground and HQ Raleigh or learning from professors and entrepreneurship experts at the local universities. Many veteran entrepreneurs are also involved as mentors or experts.
Bundschu hopes to eventually bring on local funders, in hopes of offering $15,000 to $20,000 in seed funding to each entrepreneur and to expand to serve even more vetrepreneurs. He's already planning for 3,000 square feet of space in RTP's new development. Subchapters in other parts of the state are also part of the plan.
"We want to secure more local support, fine-tune the program and then we'll really expand over the next year," Bundschu says.
Driving him are those leadership skills learned at a young age, along with a relentless pursuit of his mission.
"In the military, we do whatever it takes to figure out how to make something happen, because failure isn't an option," Bundschu says. "When given a mission, you have no other choice but to accomplish it."