Green and granola might be common ways to describe residents of Asheville. But reality is that sustainability and the natural environment actually drive the economy in North Carolina’s largest mountain town.
And that’s why a team of entrepreneurs, educators and investors believe it’s the best place for the nation’s premiere green tech accelerator. Launching late this year or early next is a new three-month startup accelerator program sponsored by the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech) and the Greenville, S.C. The Iron Yard (which is also opening a code school with Smashing Boxes in Durham). Organizers hope that entrepreneurs from around the world will move to Asheville to take advantage of its many resources for green technology and product companies.
Those include the hundreds of scientists who work at Asheville’s National Climatic Data Center, which holds the world’s largest climate data archive; professors and researchers at the greenest university in the country, Warren Wilson College; solar energy experts at FLS Energy, a leader in its field; and handfuls of software entrepreneurs who have settled in town. The community college has also won several Department of Energy grants around sustainability.
Plans for an accelerator in Asheville are at least three years old, says Marilyn McDonald, strategic business development officer at A-B Tech. For several years, the college has incubated biofuels, natural products and sustainable agriculture companies at its Business Acceleration facility off-campus. More than 15 are in the incubator now.
But it lacked a training program for early-stage entrepreneurs who didn’t yet need office space, but instead the mentorship, connections and funding to get ideas off the ground. And there were few existing programs around the nation serving green software and hardware entrepreneurs. The highest-profile is the Cleantech Open, which is a months-long contest and mostly virtual accelerator for clean tech startups. In the Triangle, the Cherokee-McDonough Challenge targets sustainable or environmental startups with office space, support and $20,000 in funds, though investors are taking 2014 off to determine how to scale the program.
In 2011, McDonald visited several accelerators and even became a prospective member of TechStars’ Global Accelerator Network.
“We’re not a city that’s going to be building factories like BMW (near Greenville),” she says. “Our model for economic development is to grow jobs by helping small companies grow and scale. A tech accelerator is an obvious thing for us to explore.”
But it wasn’t until she learned of The Iron Yard’s successful tech accelerator in Greenville and digital health program in Spartanburg, and then received an introduction to the founders, that she developed a plan to launch the program.
“Our communities are very different but we’re so close together,” says McDonald. Greenville is about a 45-minute drive from Asheville, and the cities are part of the same media market. “We could leverage the regional strength, but bring on board an experienced management team who already runs successful accelerators.”
The Iron Yard’s most successful graduates include TinderBox, an Indianapolis startup that has raised $3 million for its sales automation software, and Prime Genomics, which began clinical trials of its saliva-based tests to detect breast cancer. More than a million online courses have been created through the online education platform, Pathwright. And AuditFile has moved to San Francisco and raised $3 million for its cloud platform for CPAs. One Iron Yard company has been acquired.
To kick off Asheville, The Iron Yard is raising funds from local and national investors to launch the program—it will make a $20,000 investment in each startup selected for the program. There will be 10 startups in the first class. A-B Tech’s Education and Entrepreneurial Development Foundation will round up corporate donations to provide its operational funds.
The Iron Yard’s accelerator director Marty Bauer will run the program next spring, and will pull from its dozens of mentors around the nation and 60 or so graduated founders to support the Asheville companies. Mentors range from Treehouse founder Ryan Carson to Zaarly founder Bo Fishback to managers at Twitter, Google, Groupon and Mailchimp.
With the help of A-B Tech, Bauer also hopes to add local mentors and others nationally with connections to the region. Like the Iron Yard’s existing accelerators, there will be a high-profile demo day (the digital health accelerator’s happens at the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco) and a community launch event in Asheville. The big goal, is for graduating startups to raise funds from investors around the nation.
“We want to make sure our companies have national exposure and let people know that really great things are going here in Asheville or here in the Carolinas,” he says. “Being able to showcase that on a national level is really, really important.”