When I stopped by recently for a chat with John Austin, the director of Groundwork, the room was mostly darkened. People hurried to and from training sessions and worked on their computers, sitting at desks that lined up neatly in rows.
The entire arrangement reminded me of a school.
Like a kindly professor, John Austin answered my questions by taking a marker and drawing on the white board to illustrate where Groundwork falls in the startup ecosystem. After we concluded the interview, he sent me homework -- the Powerpoint presentation upon which his white board drawing was based:
The �school� feel of Groundwork is enforced by its flexible program, which wants to catch startups near the beginning of their development and provide a range of immersive training, but take no equity position or provide funding. Teams stay for about three months, but sometimes longer. Applications are taken on a rolling basis, and Groundwork hopes to graduate about 20 teams a year.
The accelerator is drawing a mix of repeat entrepreneurs, newly minted entrepreneurs just out of school, and recent transplants to the Triangle. For these �students,� perhaps a school-like environment is exactly what they need to be propelled to the next level. It's about getting back to the basics, in an environment where it can feel like you're working on projects together, every now and then looking over at the next table to see how the other team's science project is coming along, sharing tips on improving your elevator pitch -- basically, laying the groundwork.
�Here, it's really changed my life in terms of a startup to be taught how to pitch, make connections,� said Liat Belinson, who moved to the U.S. from Israel. She founded Artificial Intelligence Patents, which develops a patent search technology management tool.
�Before, I sat in coffee shops, sent emails to potential investors. It wasn't working.�
Groundwork fulfills part of the void that was left when Launchbox Digital, after a year in existence, boxed up in fall 2011, and there was the danger that Durham's startup scene would become stagnant. There are startups thriving elsewhere in downtown Durham and elsewhere in the Triangle, but Launchbox, along with Joystick Labs, had provided that extra boost of energy, not only in terms of people and money, but also a more unquantifiable emotional boost.
Entrepreneurs are dreamers who are often working for peanuts, fueled by the blinding optimism that one day, their dreams will come true. But in between the harsh present and the successful future is a hard road to walk, and you must face emotional blows daily in the form of rejection, confusion, and the stress of operating without a safety net. It helps when there are cheerleaders and mentors like John to guide you along and give you homework when you need it, and it helps to know others are in the same boat.
Along with Groundwork, Joystick and Triangle Startup Factory, helmed by Chris Heivly, formerly with Launchbox, are now the accelerators in the Underground. The three share space, with half of the classroom going to Groundwork/Joystick, and the other half used by TSF.
John is still at the head of Joystick, which still focuses on gaming and is taking applications.
Groundwork is funded by Capitol Broadcasting Co., parent company of American Tobacco, and NC IDEA, an organization that has a history of nurturing the startup scene. The connection with NC IDEA, along with the mentorship provided by the organization, has helped startups in Groundwork.
(Read our previous takes on TSF and NC IDEA.)
Three graduates from Groundwork received grants from NC IDEA in June: Motaavi, a platform where people can invest and trade shares of early-stage companies; Impulsonic, which develops audio creation content tools for tablets; and Gema Touch.
The Gema Touch team was there when I stopped by, and allowed me to order virtual drinks on an iPhone using their touch-sensitive device that can be embedded in flexible materials, such as restaurant menus. Gema Touch is going to beta in the next month.
More details about the current class:
iMedia Revenue -- A cloud-based SaaS platform to manage online advertising for news publishing companies. CEO Rich Julius has significant experience in the news industry and ties to Silicon Valley. Could this be a viable platform for the changing news industry, hit hard by the recession and online media?
Rip Cog -- Tackles problems in small business networking by helping small businesses generate word-of-mouth referrals from their existing social networks. Founder is Ben Quinn, known in downtown circles as the ActionCOACH. Ben hung up his coaching hat to be the entrepreneur, with the hopes of turning his knowledge of the needs of small businesses into a tech platform.
Sync Hear -- A Bluetooth device that streams the audio from televisions in loud, crowded bars to smartphones. This could come in handy next time you're a Tar Heel fan in a bar on Ninth St. No security detail provided when you're cheering against the crowd though.
Pluribus Systems -- Tackles an e-commerce problem of safety. Generating single-use credit/debit card numbers directly from the consumer's computer or mobile device.
Wanderful -- A virtual environment for the exploration, sharing, and preservation of local history and culture.
Gift When -- A �conditional giving� campaign. In a GiftWhen campaign, pledges only go to the recipient entity when a specific condition has been met.
Able Device -- Reduces the cost, complexity, and risk associated with developing embedded wireless applications in machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.