New downtown startup space attracts entrepreneurs seeking creative energy

Jul. 18, 2013 @ 08:17 PM

For Rob Witman, the founder of a Durham start-up that’s developed an app to allow users to play poker on their TVs using their iPhones or iPads, there’s something about the energy from being around other start-ups.

“If you put yourself in a place with a lot of energy and a lot of start-ups, that can lift your startup,” said Witman, of the two-person company Splitmo, a company founded in 2012 to create mobile apps that can be used with technologies that allow Internet access on a television, such as Apple TV.

The company has two products so far. One is an application called Air Show that allows a user to show zoom, pan and caption images on his or her TV using an iPhone or iPad. The other is the video poker game Poker Night, which allows users to place bets or check their cards with Apple mobile devices.

The company moved from another space for entrepreneurs in downtown Durham to a new space that opened recently at 201 W. Main St, The Underground@Main Street. Witman was just one of the entrepreneurs who attended an opening party on Thursday for the new hub for start-ups. Several hundred people were expected to attend.

The 22,000-square foot space houses 40 different start-ups, but can host as many as 50. Companies that lease space in the hub range from a company called Robot Factorial that’s developing games for mobile devices to ShiftZen, a company behind restaurant scheduling software.

The renovated Underground@Main Street space has meetings rooms, a slide, games and other amenities. In addition to co-working space for individual entrepreneurs, it has offices for teams of start-ups.

N.C. IDEA, a nonprofit that provides early-stage financing to technology companies in the state, plans to sponsor networking events and programs at the hub. Duke University has leased space there, and so has N.C. Central University.

Eric Toone, director of the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, said in an email that the hub is an opportunity for Duke to help support and encourage entrepreneurship. He also said there’s demand on campus for those kinds of experiences.

“It’s an opportunity for our faculty and students and it’s and it’s an opportunity to be involved in the development of downtown Durham,” he said.

N.C. Central’s space in the hub is its first off-campus office, confirmed D. Keith Pigues, dean of the N.C. Central University School of Business. In the school’s space, he said student-interns will work on projects with hub companies, and an entrepreneur-in-residence will hold office hours with students, guiding their projects as well as providing advice to start-ups in the space.

“We want our students to have the opportunity to get real experience learning in the entrepreneur and start-up community,” Pigues said.

Ed Weems, a lecturer of marketing at N.C. State University’s Poole College of Management, will be the entrepreneur-in-residence. Weems said he’s spent 28 years starting companies and growing them, ranging an information technology consulting firm to a software company to an office supply equipment retail business.

“I decided to come over here because what they’re doing is exciting,” he said. “This is an opportunity to do something that can build the economy,” he added.

Underground@Main is the second space dedicated to entrepreneurs launched by the owner of the American Tobacco, the mixed-use development of renovated tobacco factory buildings downtown.

Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Co. opened its first start-up hub for entrepreneurs in 2010 in the basement of American Tobacco. Initially known as the American Underground, the space has since been re-dubbed The Underground@American Tobacco.

“At the Underground, we want to help launch businesses with truly innovative ways to serve real world needs and see them grow into full-fledged successes that produce good jobs,” said Adam Klein, American Underground chief strategist, in a news release.

There are other spaces that house entrepreneurs in Durham.

Robert Petrusz is a founder of the co-working space Bull City Coworking, which is a shared office space on Duke Street for telecommuters, freelancers, writers and startups. There’s also another in the city called Mercury Studio.

“I am not alone when I saw we are delighted to see Underground@Main join the co-working scene in the Triangle,” Petrusz said in an email. “Having additional co-working space options for local residents is great for Durham.”

Petrusz said he believes having a cluster of three high-quality co-working spaces will “make people stand up and take notice.” However, he also said he believes it’s hard to say where there is enough demand for all of them

“I suspect that many co-working spaces in existence today will be gone in a year or two,” he said. “Like restaurants, it’s a tough business. Many won’t make it.”