There are a bunch of great road trip movies – this one won’t make you laugh as much as National Lampoon’s Vacation or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, but let’s call it John and Lauren Go to Lawndale, NC – my colleague Lauren McCullough and I spent a couple days visiting interesting startups, spaces and programs that are thriving between Durham and Candler, NC. We were energized by the people we met – hopefully you will be, too – if nothing else, we can at least point you to some great food and beverage across the state that we enjoyed along the way.
NC IDEA’s mission has always been statewide, but we have not often ventured outside of the Triangle. NC IDEA ECOSYSTEM, a grant program we began over a year ago, is one way we’ve broadened our reach. The other is to actively help startups in other parts of the state become more competitive in our longstanding grant program, NC IDEA SEED. We scheduled presentations in Charlotte and Asheville to coincide with our upcoming NC IDEA SEED application deadline, but ended up scheduling a lot more fun along the way.
We hit the road early – our first stop was in Winston-Salem at Flywheel Coworking. We met up with Peter Marsh and Joel Bennet. Flywheel, located in the Wake Forest Innovation Quarterhas recently located to their new building right on the edge of Old Salem, Salem College and Winston-Salem State University – also home of The Center for Design Innovation, a joint effort of the School of the Arts, WSSU and Forsyth Tech. Flywheel provides co-working, offices, innovation services, and is the home of the New Ventures Accelerator, a 12-week startup accelerator with an upcoming application deadline on March 31st.
We drove a mile up the road to meet with Karen Barnes of Venture Café. Founded in 2017, Venture Café provides a space for convening entrepreneurs and innovators in the Piedmont Triad through Thursday gatherings and a host of other entrepreneurial activities. On February 22nd, Venture Café of Winston-Salem will move into the newly renovated Bailey Power Plant, an icon of the city’s manufacturing heritage. The building will also house innovation suites, Wake Forest Innovations’ offices, as well as restaurants and other businesses, very akin to NC IDEA’s location in the former power plant of the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham. It was quite interesting to see some of the exact same elements in their building from the power plant days that we see in our office.
Next, we walked UPHILL against the WIND on a BITTERLY COLD day to visit Steve Lineberger and Betsy Brown from Winston Starts, the latest addition to the local Triad ecosystem. Winston Starts is part of the GMAC building renovation project, and will provide 35,000 square feet of flexible office and co-working space, serving as a catalyst for Winston-Salem’s quickly-growing startup community. It might have the best view of any co-working space in the state – looking out toward Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock. Winston Starts will also be the new home to several NC IDEA alumni including Neighborz, a Fall 2017 NC IDEA SEED grant winner. Our biggest surprise of the trip was learning that Amy Roberts, founder of Healthy Bytes, a team in our 2014 cohort of NC IDEA LABS, then affectionately called Groundwork Labs, has decided to relocate her company back to North Carolina from New York City – influenced by the opportunity that Winston Starts offers.
Those who know me know that my incentive for embarking on these road trips is to sample local food and beverage, so I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a great lunch at Hutch & Harris with Steve and Betsy to end our time in Winston.
On to Charlotte – where we had the opportunity to meet up with Walt Frye, Executive Director for the Charlotte Regional Fund for Entrepreneurship (CRFE), a public-private partnership supported by the City of Charlotte, Chamber of Commerce, community foundations and entrepreneurial leaders to strengthen and elevate Charlotte’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Finally, we got to the initial purpose of our trip – a seminar, hosted by NC IDEA ECOSYSTEM partner, Ventureprise, on writing a competitive NC IDEA SEED grant application. We were delighted that more than 50 people attended. Thanks to Devin Collins and the crew at UNC Charlotte for their efforts on not just executing programs – but programs with an intended purpose – to increase the number of QUALITY grant applications from the Charlotte region.
While I applaud the entrepreneurial efforts of Ventureprise, I’ve got to say – you don’t have the gastronomic cache of Durham right there next to campus! I need to get some tips from Devon next time before I head out to dinner. And I dread the impact that at-grade light rail crossings will have on Durham and Chapel Hill after trying to make a left turn into the Charlotte campus – but I digress on a rant.
We hit the road to Asheville – a really pleasant drive – the only downside being that we passed Red’s Barbecue Lodge in Shelby an hour too early to sample the barbecue.
Our first stop in LA (Lovely Asheville, to those who have never been there) was at The Collider to meet with Executive Director Megan Robinson and Josh Dorfman, director of entrepreneurship at Venture Asheville, our second NC IDEA ECOSYSTEM partner rendezvous of the trip. The Collider’s co-working space is focused on startups who are creating businesses around climate – unbeknownst to me, there is a rather large NOAA climate facility in Asheville that “is forecasted” to create some interesting startups.
After lunch, we set out to meet Fall 2017 NC IDEA SEED grant winner Mike Woliansky from No Evil Foods at their current processing facility where we literally saw the “sausage”, more like “vegan sausage” being made. NEF makes plant-based meats meant to recreate the taste and textural experience of traditional proteins – why a vegan would want that is completely beyond a meat (particularly BBQ) lover like me – but Lauren says their product is great – and more importantly their business is growing like crazy.
What do you think of when you hear Sand Hill Road? The epicenter of VC in Silicon Valley, of course. Well, lo and behold, that’s where we were headed next – Sand Hill Road – in Candler, NC, home of Blue Ridge Food Ventures on the campus of Asheville Buncombe Community College. Today, this is where No Evil Foods is located but in just a couple of months will be relocating to their own facility enabled by our recent grant.
How do I describe Blue Ridge Food Ventures? It’s NC IDEA LABS for food entrepreneurs in western North Carolina. Since 2005, Blue Ridge Food Ventures has offered farmers, food and natural products entrepreneurs, caterers, bakers and food truck and mobile cart operators an opportunity to bring their product ideas to market. Over 235 clients have used the services of BRFV since its opening generating over $8.6M in value of products.
We were then on to meet with Rosanna Mulcahy, associate director of the Western Women’s Business Center. Rosanna and team at WWBC are working to provide capital, high quality technical assistance and programs that reduce barriers and serve as a catalyst to the success of women entrepreneurs in Western North Carolina. Their work is focused on a different audience than NC IDEA today, but her story and the work she is doing to help under-resourced entrepreneurs was inspiring to both of us.
Finally, we met up with Josh again to reprise our NC IDEA SEED grant presentation for more than 30 Asheville entrepreneurs. I was excited to see a few technology companies (sorry, I’m a geek at heart) amongst my stereotypical view of the Asheville entrepreneurial scene – outdoor goods, consumer products and funky stuff. I’m continually inspired by the ideas and energy of entrepreneurs. And, oh by the way, they had some good Asheville beer there for us.
And before we leave Asheville, I can’t help but give you some travel recommendations. If you’ve been in my office, you know there are two things on my wall – “The Great NC BBQ Map” and “The Great NC Beer Map”. We’ve got to hand it to Asheville – the food is just as good as Durham, and better yet, there’s more (but not better) BEER! Thanks to Josh’s recommendation, we had a great lunch at Buxton Hall BBQ – as my BBQ guru Bob Garner says, “Mmm, Mmm”.
After lunch we picked up some donuts for Thursday’s breakfast at Vortex Donuts – though I think Lauren got into them a little early. After our evening presentation, we had a great dinner at Pack’s Tavern (accompanied by a couple local Asheville brews). Being of an older age, I was ready to call it a night, but Lauren INSISTED we visit a couple local breweries – so we checked out Wicked Weed and One World Brewing – “Mmmm, Mmm”.
Of course Lauren was starving in the morning because she prematurely ate her donut, but because of my immense self control, I was fortified for the drive by my morning pastry. We set out to meet up with Kerri Hall, founder of MicMag By Me, a participant in our NC IDEA LABS program last summer. I’ve had over 150 companies participate in the LABS program over the last 5 years. Just like your kids – you don’t have favorites – you love them all the same. But I do have a handful of favorite stories, and we were on our way to visit with one of them.
I’ll be honest – I wasn’t sure this old school, almost-but-not-nearly-as-old-as-me-I-hope-that-doesn’t-offend-her, not-very-technical, expert-at-furniture-design-and-manufacturing, would fit in our program where most of the founders are software and hardware geeks. Kerri’s got a great idea for easy-to-put-together, customizable, personalized furniture that can be sold online. Just like Spoonflower (one of our very early grant winners 10 years ago) is revolutionizing the North Carolina textile industry – I have hope that this is a company that can do the same for our furniture industry. Since she left our LABS program, Kerri was able to identify a company ideal to manufacture her product – McNeilly Furniture in Lawndale, NC – and when Kerri heard we had a road trip scheduled, she invited us to meet up with her at McNeilly. What a great welcome – in the middle of this factory Kerri had set us up with some sparkling apple juice, cheese and crackers to thank us.
We heard the McNeilly story from Cindee Mellon. Her father started the company, and at its peak it employed more than 100 people manufacturing furniture. As with most of these companies in the region in the 2000s, their work went overseas and the company had to retrench. At their nadir, they employed only 15 people, and were losing money for years running. Under Cindee’s direction, they have reinvented themselves as a short run manufacturer of high end, specialized products, and are now employing 22 people. Kerri and Cindee have a vision for this facility returning to the employment they had 10 years ago. Standing in this factory in the small town of Lawndale, a long way from the high-tech startup scene of RTP, I was inspired by the work that Kerri and Cindee are doing to grow the North Carolina economy.
The last stop on our journey was 30 miles up the road at Catawba Valley Community College, the third NC IDEAECOSYSTEM partner stop on our trip. We met with George Kripner, senior strategic advisor to the President who shared the work CVCC is doing with entrepreneurship and advanced manufacturing. The back-to-back contrast between the McNeilly Furniture factory and the knitting that we saw in Hickory could not have been more stark. Companies from around the world are coming to Hickory to learn techniques and about advanced textile production and manufacturing through the Manufacturing Solutions Center.
First, and probably not most important, there’s great food and beer all over the state. But seriously, both Lauren and I were able to see up close how different the entrepreneurial ecosystems are from RTP and from each other. Each community has different needs – but all can be impacted by our imperative of growing the North Carolina economy by helping startups.
Next up – a trip east!