Launch Chapel Hill: Open house held for business accelerator
Leaders from the town, county and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gathered Wednesday to mark the opening of a West Rosemary Street building as a new home for start-up businesses.
The business accelerator, Launch Chapel Hill, that will offer office space and mentorship to entrepreneurs opened at 321 W. Rosemary St. as a result of a partnership that included the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the town and county governments, and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.
More than 100 people gathered for the open house Wednesday, including outgoing UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp and Barry Jacobs, chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, and others.
Jacobs noted to the crowd that a portion of the county’s quarter-cent sales tax hike earmarked for economic development that he said is helping to pay a part of the county’s share of rent for the building for several years. He said a stereotype that the county is not business friendly can be “put to rest.”
In addition to the county’s assistance, the town of Chapel Hill is also kicking in funding for rent. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt also touted the town’s role in offering economic development incentives in the project.
“The council actually put a little bit of its money at risk and put it on the table to say we can make business here in Chapel Hill,” Kleinschmidt said Wednesday.
In addition to helping to fund the rent, the town also offered 3 Birds Marketing free parking at a town-owned lot on Graham Street to agree to move to a new location at 505 W. Franklin St.
The property vacated by 3 Birds is now the home of the accelerator. In exchange for the parking, the firm must meet certain hiring targets, or reimburse the town.
The marketing firm was also slated to kick in funds as well as services to support the project.
“Government, business and higher education can come together to create a (growing) economy,” Kleinschmidt said.
At Wednesday’s open house, one of the start-ups showcasing products or services was Sanitation Creations. The company is working to build a business around a portable, odorless, waterless toilet called the “Dungaroo.”
The toilet, which is in the prototype stage of development, has a flushing mechanism that seals off individual plastic waste bags when the toilet is flushed, creating a chain of sealed plastic bags.
The device is envisioned for use for portable toilet manufacturers, and to help in developing countries without sewer systems.
Liz Morris, the founder of the start-up, said the business now has a toilet prototype built, and they hope to begin testing of the product this summer. On Wednesday, she pushed a pedal of the prototype with her heel to demonstrate how it works. She said they plan to do some testing out of the Chapel Hill accelerator.
Eric McAfee, co-founder and president of a start-up called Gift Boogle, said the company has two office locations – in Chapel Hill, and also at the First Flight Venture Center, which also houses entrepreneurs and start-ups in the Research Triangle Park.
The company, which has not started earning revenue yet, is looking to build a business around a gift-giving matching website.
McAfee said it’s like Match.com for gifts. The website has technology that would allow information from social media websites such as Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn, to help provide information about what a person might like to receive as a gift.
“That data is then used to match the (person) with the products and services,” McAfee said. “We’re basically Match.com for gift givers.”
The company was slated to start enrolling the first 100,000 people for the service as part of a testing phase of their launch. He said they’re looking to limit the number of initial users in the alpha release of the website as a mechanism for managing growth and to make sure the infrastructure supports the demand.
Scott Kleist, co-founder of Gift Boogle and the executive vice president of sales, touted during Wednesday’s event opportunities to learn about financing, marketing accounting or sales through the accelerator.
Entrepreneur Dina Mills was recruited to lead the Launch Chapel Hill project, according to information from the Town of Chapel Hill, and Jim Kitchen is slated to serve as its first entrepreneur-in-residence.
“Our goal with launch is to create impact,” Kitchen said Wednesday.