ThinkHouse

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Raleigh’s historic Boylan Heights neighborhood reflects the city’s vibrance in many ways—with a bridge that overlooks a full view of the downtown skyline, a variety of houses dating back to 1907 and an annual ArtWalk festival that’s over 20 years old. 

It’s also home to a live-in accelerator program, ThinkHouse, which just finished off its third year of existence and graduated a cohort of seven startups.

Since HQ Raleigh launched the program in 2013, ThinkHouse has helped guide early-stage startups and budding entrepreneurs through an immersive, 10-month residential fellowship.

But it doesn’t stop there. Two branches launched last year to bring the ThinkHouse’s residential peer collaboration experience to new cities and populations.

Duke TeachHouse in Durham is a two-year fellowship program in partnership with Duke University. It’s open to early-career graduates of Duke’s elementary, secondary and master of arts in teaching programs.

Duke TeachHouse
A historic structure in East Durham houses the fellows for Duke TeachHouse. Credit: Duke University
Fellows teach full-time in the Durham Public School system and live in a 115-year-old Victorian-style house in the east side of Durham. Mentors and support help improve their teaching skills and launch innovation initiatives for the schools they serve.

As the program’s first six fellows enter year two of the program, Duke TeachHouse has applications open for the next cohort.

There’s also ThinkHouseU, located in Greensboro. It’s a year-long experience that helps student entrepreneurs—mainly from UNC Greensboro and North Carolina A&T State University— build the skills, knowledge and networks they’ll need to launch successful ventures. 

ThinkHouseU’s first class included six fellows from various fields—like Gordon Holliday of Roole, a clothing brand that blends youth culture and contemporary menswear, or Stephanie McGill of Kova Coffee Company, an online coffee business that delivers its products to your home.

This year’s Raleigh ThinkHouse class was led by entrepreneurial management expert Greg Hopper as part of his position as HQ Raleigh’s first strategist-in-residence, a role launched last year to provide mentorship in business strategy and development to members.

Hopper’s job is to connect the large bank of mentors in HQ Raleigh’s network to the appropriate fellows—either through relationships or one-off meetings.

After graduating, five of the seven 2015-16 startups are moving forward and launching new businesses.

Christopher Gergen, who started ThinkHouse along with fellow HQ Raleigh co-founders Jason Widen, Brooks Bell and Jesse Lipson, says this fact speaks well of the class and of the overall experience.

“It’s hard work to see that kind of outcome, but they’re doing things aligned with what they’re passionate about,” he adds.

Here’s what three 2015-2016 ThinkHouse graduates say of their experience and the program’s impact on their companies:

Allison Fairbank, founder of Fresh Box

Allison Fairbank, Freshbox
Allison Fairbank is the founder of Fresh Box, a food preservation and packaging startup in Raleigh. Credit: Allison Fairbank
Home food packaging startup Fresh Box has a natural system that preserves food for a much longer amount of time than other brands do. The product can be used to preserve anything from a bag of salad to a bag of potato chips. 

Allison Fairbank founded Fresh Box as an electrical engineering student at NC State and the startup has since completed the national Cleantech Open accelerator, NC State’s Technology Incubator and Groundwork Labs

This year, ThinkHouse helped Fresh Box narrow down its product design and get closer to launch.

Fairbank says she’s working on an addition to Fresh Box’s countertop unit system—a handheld device consumers can use to freshen their food from anywhere, not just their kitchens. Connections made through ThinkHouse are helping Fairbank develop a prototype for the device.

It was the program's weekly classes, meetings with mentors and pitch practices that stood out most to Fairbank. 

She also gives credit to her peers for providing support, motivation and feedback. 

“Every time I saw someone, they’d always ask how things were going,” she says. “That held me accountable and kept me motivated.”

The program also offered connections and introductions that helped Fairbank get more mentorship and advice about advancing Fresh Box. She continued weekly meetings with some of those connections and says she “still gets to utilize some of the benefits of the program after graduating.”

There’s a patent pending to release the technology to other companies, but Fairbank hopes to launch the product this spring and start selling at farmer’s markets and online.

Rebecca Holmes, founder of Ello Raw 

Rebecca Holmes Ello Raw
Rebecca Holmes is the founder of Raleigh dessert startup Ello Raw. Credit: Rebecca Holmes
Ello Raw has a collection of dessert bites made of organic, nutrient-rich ingredients that are 100 percent raw. The products haven’t been heated at high temperatures, so they retain the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are often destroyed when cooked.

Holmes, a recent Duke graduate, founded Ello Raw a few years ago and now, the startup’s products are for sale online and carried at Triangle retailers like Joe Van Gogh Coffee and Southern Season. The startup has also been accepted as a Whole Foods vendor.

Working alongside like-minded and passionate ThinkHouse fellows pushed and inspired her to keep working hard everyday.

But ThinkHouse didn’t follow through with the amount of support and programming it promised, she says. Despite that, Holmes says that she and the fellows “moved forward and bonded as a group” in the process of searching for resources together.

Ryan O'Donnell, co-founder of EmployUs

EmployUs cofounders
Ryan O'Donnell, left, is CEO of EmployUs. His co-founder, Jeff Stocks, is the company's chairman. Credit: EmployUs
Raleigh-based EmployUs is a mobile platform that allows users to recommend friends or family for jobs and earn money if a referral leads to a hire. 

What sets it apart is that it’s “really the only platform that allows anyone, not just a headhunter, to get rewarded for the network they have built,” says O’Donnell.

The app also has a refined market targeted to specific regions, starting with the Triangle. It’s also marketed to both job seekers and employers, which helps EmployUs to scale up through partnerships and customers city by city.

O’Donnell says that the network aspect of the HQ Community has been valuable in creating opportunities for EmployUs. 

Its “density, diversity and reach” creates an ecosystem and community of young and seasoned founders who are working to build scalable companies, he adds.

This was especially crucial as EmployUs raised its initial round of funding last year, scoring investments from Sovereign’s CapitalCofounders Capital and several angel investors. Dollars raised went toward making improvements to the app before making it available to Android and iPhone users.

This year, EmployUs secured over 100 Triangle employees to add to the app, which paved the way for its launch last week.

As with Fairbank, a big takeaway for O’Donnell was the community aspect of ThinkHouse, which he says consists of “young founders who can all lean on each other while they’re building their startups and networks.” 

Here’s a glimpse into the other companies launched out of ThinkHouse's third cohort:

The Raleigh Arts Collective is a member-based community for local industrial artists, founded by NC State alumnus Kate VanVorstThe makerspace offers classes, workshops, office space and a tool library.

Raleigh Arts Collective
The Raleigh Arts Collective, or RAC, is located near Meredith College on Royal Street. Credit: Raleigh Arts Collective
Pitch & Primer, founded by NC State alumnus Jared Childs, has a mission to curate an online marketplace of men’s clothing that gives them confidence in their style. 

Pitch & Primer Raleigh Tee
On its e-commerce platform, Pitch & Primer sells a collection of Raleigh-themed tees and accessories. Credit: Pitch & Primer
The brand also has a local focus, selling shirts and accessories that depict features of the Triangle.

Childs also launched a mini-documentary project with another ThinkHouse fellow, Kyle Sheats. The video series, appropriately named The Interbrew, documents the duo's interviews with local founders over local beer. 

ThinkHouse will announce its 2016-2017 participants in early August.