Charlotte Cultivates Entrepreneurial Culture
Packard Place in Charlotte, NC
In Uptown Charlotte, a five-story former Packard luxury car building is now a center where entrepreneurs can congregate and exchange ideas. It's one of many initiatives in the region to help nurture and support startup companies.
Charlotte USA is a hothouse for business innovation, growing creative and knowledge-based companies at a clip that is attracting national – even international – attention.
Charlotte placed fourth on the list of Best Places to Start a Small Business by www.bizjournals.com and in the top 15 on the Creative Cities International Vitality Index, both in 2011.
The Charlotte region boasts 30,000 creative jobs, according to the most recent Creative Vitality Index, which measures the health of creative city, county and state economies, making the creative sector one of the area’s top employers.
A number of resources and initiatives nurture and support startup companies.
In Uptown Charlotte, a five-story former Packard luxury car building is now a center where entrepreneurs can congregate and exchange ideas. Packard Place, as it’s now called, even has subhubs of innovation, drawing energy entrepreneurs to CLT Joules and technology gurus to RevTech Labs.
Ventureprise Expands Focus
Ventureprise, formerly the Ben Craig Center, is a dynamic business incubator affiliated with UNC Charlotte. In its revamp, Ventureprise has added a public policy focus to provide regional leadership, says Paul Wetenhall, president.
Ventureprise’s new board includes investors, entrepreneurs, city executives and university officials to better create an alliance and act as a clearinghouse for coordinating startup support.
The Charlotte Venture Challenge, an annual innovation competition, remains part of the program, though it’s grown into a regional event that attracts companies from the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee. In 11 years, more than 100 startups have made it to the finals, and alumni companies have raised more than $40 million in venture capital. Prizes in the 2012 competition reached more than $100,000.
CanDiag, the 2012 grand prize winner, aims to commercialize a new, noninvasive diagnostic test for breast cancer that doesn’t produce false positives, as some current technology does. Founded by UNC Charlotte researcher Pinku Mukherjee, CanDiag was a finalist in 2011. In 2012, the company won $50,000.
“What we’ve learned is mentoring is the most important part and best experience the teams get,” says Devin Collins, assistant director at the Charlotte Research Institute, which oversees the Charlotte Venture Challenge.
Profiles for competing companies can’t be longer than three pages and must communicate their product potential to a business, not scientific, audience. Each team receives written feedback, and semifinalists give short pitches to 65 community mentors who serve as judges. A second round of feedback follows.
“By that time, finalists know what they need with respect to help, and mentors work with them for a month,” Collins says. “This process helps companies develop and figure out what they need, and mentors often invest or take on roles within the companies themselves.”
Success Breeds Success
Other Charlotte Venture Challenge alumni include Infosense Inc., a Charlotte company that developed a technology using sound waves to noninvasively detect blockages in long segments of collection pipe. In late 2011, the company received an NC IDEA grant, and in early 2012, it closed on convertible note financing from angel investors. In April 2012, it won $10,000 and top honors in the Venture Challenge’s New Energy and High Tech category.
Countervail Corp., also based in Charlotte, licensed existing drug technology developed at the University of Maryland to treat Alzheimer’s for a new application – as an antidote for exposure to nerve gas and pesticide poisoning. It was the biotechnology/pharmaceutical category winner in 2009.
That same year, when the competition was known as the Five Ventures Challenge, T1Visions, based in Cornelius was runner-up in the retail/services category.
The company develops large-format touchscreens and interactive displays for public use in hospitals, restaurants, hotels, retail stores and corporate offices, and recently installed a huge system at the UNC Charlotte library.
“We’ve received a lot of support locally,” says Marco Ventura, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
"That’s the idea," Wetenhall says. "Show us your stuff, and if you are good, the community will do more for you.”
Charlotte USA: A Fast Track
No. 2: Entrepreneur Magazine Best Cities for Entrepreneurs, 2009 No. 2: bizjournals.com Best Places to Start and Grow a Company, 2009 No. 4: Fiscal Times 10 Best Places to Start a Business, 2011 No. 5: bizjournals.com Most Women-Owned Businesses, 2012 No. 14: creativecities.com Most Creative Cities, 2011 No. 16: Forbes Best Cities to Start a Minority Business, 2011