With a background in nonprofits, the arts and marketing, Tim Scales had plenty of opportunity upon graduation with an MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in May.
But Groundwork Labs offered the chance to combine a passion for civic engagement and entrepreneurship formed during his years at Duke.
“It was either find a job or think very carefully about whether I had the skills personally to build something,” Scales says. “Without the vote of confidence from NC IDEA, I may not have gone into it.”
Scales has since launched a trial version of CivicRise, an app that offers issue advocacy organizations a way to rally supporters around a call to action like contacting legislators, volunteering or attending a protest or event.
CivicRise has a ways to go before it makes a large impact in the state of North Carolina, but it’s an example of the type of business that might not exist without the free accelerator program in Durham. Even more important to note, says NC IDEA’s John Austin, Scales might not be an entrepreneur without the three months of mentorship and coaching he received this summer.
Two weeks ago, Groundwork Labs announced a rebrand to NC IDEA Labs, better aligning it with the private foundation that funds and staffs it. Along with a name change, the program will shift to rolling monthly enrollment starting in January, in hopes of serving more companies and providing better tailored programming to the most capable and promising entrepreneurs and startups across the state.
The After Hours program typically reserved for entrepreneurs with a side hustle will be renamed NC IDEA Labs Lite. That kicks off this month, meeting every other week during an evening.
NC IDEA has made several moves toward generating more entrepreneurial activity and economic impact in North Carolina since CEO Thom Ruhe took over 18 months ago. Armed with an additional $1 million a year for grant-making purposes, his first priority was to fund programs around the state that promoted entrepreneurship and innovation. That effort is called the Ecosystem Partner Grant program, and has 11 recipients.
Ruhe also vowed to work with the NC IDEA staff to look hard at its existing programs. SoarTriangle merged into the NC IDEA umbrella last year, and NC IDEA helped HQ Raleigh entrepreneur-in-residence Greg Hopper start an HQ Labs program earlier this year. Groundwork had always received rave reviews, but NC IDEA wanted to explore how to serve more entrepreneurs, especially people whose timing didn’t match up with the two annual accelerator cohorts.
Over the 2017 summer, Austin tried a larger class in Groundwork, with 15 teams going through its standard 12 weeks of customer discovery, education and mentorship.
It turned out to be too many companies to manage, but perhaps not if they had staggered start dates during that time. The big aha is that there is plenty of demand from companies “with a reasonable chance of success” and plenty of entrepreneurs with “the moxie to be a great founder” and the willingness to put in hard work at Labs, Austin says.
Another learning was that a portion of those companies could benefit most from month one of the program, which covers the customer discovery phase. It’s typically evident after that month whether the rest of the Labs program will be helpful or not.
NC IDEA Labs will start five new companies each of eight months out of the year, taking a break in the summer and around the holidays. Some companies will move on to the second and third months of the program. Others won’t. The result will be a flow of companies in and out of the program, meeting with mentors and both helping and learning from each other. In all, NC IDEA should serve double the number of companies.
Part of the NC IDEA re-assessment too is better tracking and sharing its results. Though Labs hasn’t yet seen a company that went through its program exit, half of the ~140 are still in existence with about half of those with real promise. They’ve created 650 jobs and raised more than $30 million in equity and $5 million in grants. 16 companies have won an NC IDEA grant.
NC IDEA’s foundation status continues to be a benefit, Austin says. It means he can take bets on founders without investors’ dollars on the line, and achieve NC IDEA’s mission in a variety of ways.
“If the idea isn’t as well thought out or formed, the founder goes through our program, learns a bunch and even if the company doesn’t make it, they go on to another startup and apply lessons learned to help that one succeed,” Austin says.