Until recently, Asheville wouldn’t have been considered a hotbed for startup activity. To outsiders, the city’s arts culture, world-class dining scene and growing roster of notable craft breweries precedes its startup reputation. That’s why Asheville’s recent appearances on lists of America’s best startup cities alongside the heavyweights Boulder, NYC and Austin may come as quite a surprise.
A closer look at the bohemian mountain town reveals a more diverse and ingrained entrepreneurial culture that’s tinted with an interest in sustainable business. In just the past two years, in my role managing communications and events through Venture Asheville
, it’s evident that Asheville’s startup scene has been hiding underground for years, and now it’s emerging.
This development is led by a number of new accelerators, entrepreneur and mentor programs, an angel investor group, Venture Asheville (an initiative by the Economic Development Coalition), and an increasing number of startup events like 1 Million Cups Asheville
(pictured above.) There, every Wednesday you’ll bump elbows with startup founders, seasoned executives and tech professionals.
Let’s explore a number of ventures making national headlines within the city’s burgeoning startup ecosystem.
AVL Startups Funded
Asheville’s poster child for the city’s cluster of green tech businesses is FLS Energy, an industry leader in megawatt solar farms with over 100 U.S. installations. Co-founded by Dale Freudenberger in Asheville in 2006, the solar innovator is a two-time Inc. 500 company with explosive revenue growth—from $8 million in 2009 to about $150 million last year. The life science company Theraworx recently raised over $7 million in funding at a company valuation of $122 million. Led by founder and serial entrepreneur Steve Woody, Theraworx’s revenue climbed by over 450% last year, and the young company expanded into national and international markets. Its medical skin product is clinically proven to help control hospital-acquired infections. Plum Print, a startup that digitizes kids’ artwork into coffee table books, closed on a $1M seed round in 2015 and went on to win the IBM SmartCamp Raleigh pitch competition at the CED Tech Venture Conference. Co-founded by Meg Ragland and Carolyn Lanzetta, Plum Print has even appeared on The Today Show. Asheville’s most impactful venture capital news is the formation of Asheville Angels, a new angel investor network that grew to 50 members in its first year. The angel group has funded six early stage ventures in the Carolinas, including Durham-based baebies, Raleigh's RivalHealth and Plum Print.
Top 10 Performing Startups
At least 10 high-growth startups have been influential in fueling the city’s budding reputation in 2015. Many of these star performers fall into Asheville’s significant entrepreneurial industries of tech, craft breweries and outdoor gear, not to mention natural foods and products.
Acquired for $65 Million by NYC-based Everyday Health, DoctorDirectory.com became WNC’s largest tech deal in history. The online marketing platform for healthcare companies has hired significantly since the acquisition. Lab Escape, a tech startup that designs data visualization software leveraged by Fortune 500 companies, announced it was acquired by Boston-based Teikametrics. Inc. 500 tech company Cloud for Good, boasting a three-year sales growth of 1,100%, relocated to Asheville. It provides Salesforce and cloud consulting for non-profits like Habitat for Humanity and Yale University.
Wicked Weed Brewing is a top 100 brewery in the world by RateBeer.com. The first ever southeast brewery to win a GABF medal for an IPA, Wicked Weed expanded with a third location to ramp up to 50,000 barrels a year. Named North Carolina’s best new brewery by Ratebeer.com when it opened in 2013, Hi-Wire Brewing’s winning brand and strategy to bottle immediately enabled it to open a second brewery location this year. Buchi Kombucha is expanding nationally since winning Fast Company’s “Drive Your Business Forward” contest. Buchi emerged from Asheville’s highly utilized Blue Ridge Food Ventures incubator, which helps natural foods and product startups grow into regional and national brands.
Eagle’s Nest Outfitters, or ENO, now leads the world in sales of packable hammocks, an industry that’s doubled in sales and revenue in just the past two years. Chosen from 400 startups to compete in the semi-finals of the Kauffman Foundation’s first-ever national "One in a Million" pitch competition, GoWorx is a quickly becoming a leader in GoPro®, drone and smartphone camera gear.
Other Top Performers
The #1 ranked leather goods shop on Etsy with more than 350 wholesalers worldwide, In Blue Handmade won the 2015 FedEx Small Business Grant contest for $25,000 and is ready to scale up. Mother Earth Produce, a farm-to-door produce delivery service, won Shark Tank judge Daymond John’s vote in Atlanta to advance to the national #TaptheFuture pitch competition.
Launched! Asheville Startups
Asheville saw more than a handful of exciting new ventures launch this year. Here are a few to watch in 2016.
A first-of-its-kind solution for the too common pain point facing 1.4 million sellers on Etsy, BeesWax Websites develops software to crank out (in just minutes) web storefronts that seamlessly integrate with Etsy inventories. Groupdini helps larger organizations communicate more effectively with its members by utilizing its cross-platform app.
A versatile payment solution integrating Bitcoin, credit cards, cash and more, Sonic Payments addresses the rent payment headache for property managers nationwide. Coeo is a new app that connects you with the right people in the room at professional networking events. Other new startups worth mentioning are Taggd', a global street art app, UGoTour, a mobile tour guide app, and MobRocket, a social media marketing platform for small businesses. It seems Small Business Trends was on to something went it named Asheville among the 7 Best Cities to Launch a Startup in 2016, adding “Asheville is quickly earning its stripes as an east coast startup hub.”