This time of year in Chapel Hill can be a bit dull. With students home with their families, the normally thriving bars and restaurants of Franklin Street are all but abandoned, leaving townies to themselves. It’s when the students are gone that you are most aware this is a college town; their absence conspicuously noticeable. But the yearly month-long lull in the action around the holidays is a perfect time to reflect on the year and look ahead to the coming one.
December 31, 2014
Chapel Hill’s Startup Thrills of 2014
Highlights of UNC and Chapel Hill's startup community in 2014, and a look ahead at 2015
So, at the risk of this sounding like a holiday letter from an acquaintance you no longer keep up with or care about, here’s what’s been going on in Chapel Hill over the last year and some things to expect in 2015.
• This past year, startup incubator 1789 Venture Lab and accelerator Launch Chapel Hill celebrated one year in existence. Launch was conceived in a unique partnership between the county, town, university and a private donor. It just graduated a 2nd cohort of ventures and will be taking on a third in January.
• One of Launch’s first graduates, Keona Health, decided to stay in Chapel Hill after securing $2.5 million in funding this year as well as a Small Business Technology Development grant from the National Institute of Health and a One North Carolina Small Business Fund Grant. Keona, a triage software platform for healthcare centers that was born out of UNC, now has their own office space in Chapel Hill.
• 1789 Venture Lab, the startup space for UNC students made some big strides in 2014. The incubator graduated two ventures into Launch and is sending another three there in January.
• Among those companies is UConnection, a dining and nightlife mobile app that gives students discounts at participating venues. Taylor Meyer and Zach Hunter started the company when they were undergrads at UNC and are now expanding the company into Raleigh and Madison, Wisconsin.
• Another UNC success story, Sweeps, is expanding throughout North Carolina in the coming year. Like UConnection, founder Morris Gelblum launched Sweeps when he was still an undergrad at Carolina. Morris and his team have built the company purely through hard work and bootstrapping. The company that connects college students looking for work with customers who need odd jobs done just set up shop in Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
• UNC-born startup, Nugget Comfort recently launched its product after hitting a Kickstarter goal in less than 24 hours. The company has since nearly tripled the original goal of $20,000. The company makes foam futon-alternative couches that will soon be available for purchase on the Rooms To Go and Wayfair websites. Nugget will use the Kickstarter funds to cover insurance costs associated with doing business with major retailers.
• Chapel Hill apparel company Thrill City is partnering with UNC alumnus and Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson. The brand made national headlines this year when the Milwaukee Bucks’ John Henson was photographed wearing the company’s SCAM t-shirt, a not so subtle jab at the NCAA’s policy of amateurism which denies momentary compensation to its “student-athletes.” There is no word yet on the whether or not the NCAA considers Lawson’s investment an improper benefit. Let’s hope Thrill City stays eligible in 2015.
• The CUBE, UNC’s hub for social innovation, turns three years old in 2015. At an alumni event in New York this past April, Kerry Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy Jr. and MSNBC’s Ed Schultz were in attendance to congratulate the Campus Y and CUBE on the organizations’ work in advancing social justice.
• The Eshelman School of Pharmacy received a gift of $100 million from alumnus and founder of Pharmaceutical Product Development and Furiex Pharmaceuticals Fred Eshelman. The gift is the largest from an individual in the university’s history and will go toward creating the Eshelman Institute for Innovation. The Institute will provide faculty with resources to pursue research intended to fuel economic development.
• The Kenan-Flagler Business School established the Adams Apprenticeship, a program designed to give current student-entrepreneurs access to a network of UNC alumni mentors. The year-long program is open to undergraduates in their junior year from any major and first-year MBA students.
• The university has a new Makerspace that includes 3D printers, 3D scanners, design and modeling materials and electronics. This is a huge development for students who are interested in creating physical products. Any student can access the space and build a prototype with little technical knowledge. Entrepreneurs will no longer have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to third parties to build an MVP, making lean startup methodology an easier proposition for designers.
• The Carolina Challenge celebrated its ninth year with the annual pitch party, the competition’s kick-off event, in Kenan Stadium this year. Hundreds of students, faculty and judges participated with thousands of dollars in prizes awarded. The regular competition begins in February and will include several elimination rounds culminating in finals in April.
• The School of Journalism’s Reese News Lab and PBS hosted MediaShift, a conference and hackathon designed to engage students to address challenges in today’s media. Ten universities from across the country participated in the weekend-long event in June. The Reese News Lab continues to build momentum itself, spinning off its first startup and putting compelling ideas into the world to change the media business in the future.
With 2015 and the second semester fast approaching, what else might happen in Chapel Hill this school year? Shoot us an email at [email protected] to make your predictions, or comment below.