It Takes a Village to Launch Chapel Hill

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It Takes a Village to Launch Chapel Hill

By: Tom Griffen

Launch Chapel Hill, a startup accelerator located on West Rosemary Street, is a place where entrepreneurial dreams turn into reality. Birthed from a unique partnering of government, university, and private support, its success demonstrates the thrilling possibility of community partnerships.

Formally affiliated with UNC Chapel Hill, and supported by the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange County, Launch was recently recognized as one of the top 5 university resources of its kind in North America. Considering it has only been around since 2013, this top-notch honor validates its trajectory. The awarding organization, UBI Global, says “The top benchmarked incubators provide almost half the total economic impact within the incubation market.”

Annually, Launch selects startups based on their strength of ideas, team passion, and the scalability of the project. Coachable applicants with a global vision are the most competitive. Sixty-three startups to date have been served by Launch. They represent a cross section of the population: students, faculty or recent alumni, and the community at large.

Program Manager Dina Rousset envisions Launch as the central hub for entrepreneurs in the local ecosystem. She believes that deep connections in the community create an incomparable network of resources. The question that guides her team’s work is simple: How can they help grow each business?

Cohorts say that the ability to crowdsource common problems is invaluable—they are able to brainstorm heavy topics with resident entrepreneurs, thus speeding up the learning curve and decreasing the chance of failure.

“Our goal is to create collisions,” Dina said. “To force people to run into each other.”

Many of these collisions are purposefully built into the Launch model: business workshops, one-on-one mentorships, regular access to the advice of seasoned entrepreneurs, resource partners and business services, and a collaborative workspace in the heart of Chapel Hill.

Some collisions, however, are accidental. Who knows—a lighthearted gathering, such as Pizza Friday, may result in a wildly transformative conversation between startup owners. Similar to a think tank, these informal connections often lead to crystalizing moments.

Current Launch cohorts are developing cutting-edge business ideas. A few examples: Papirys, a blockchain-enabled database that allows users to work with encrypted information in real time. Roof, a smartphone application that offers students (and others) a way to share roommate expenses, chores, and payments. Virtual Kinetics gives physical therapists the ability to use cell phone cameras to automate routine processes and engage patients in their own care. The list goes on.

The folks at Launch keep things real. They consciously create a culture of give-and-take with hope that startups will reach back to help cohorts following in their footsteps.

Embodying this very ideal is a diverse web of committed community associates: volunteer guest speakers, motivated business school affiliates, and more than 250 local mentors and advisors. Launch knows that starting a successful business takes a village, and it seems they’ve created one too.

“We consider ourselves part of [each cohort’s] team. We try to lead by example,” says Dina.

Dina, mother of four (triplets plus one) and a self-described “serial entrepreneur,” has more than 25 years experience developing and managing international ventures. Locally, she cofounded LunaPops, a gourmet frozen popsicle producer. Though no longer affiliated with her own startups, she works with each Launch cohort as if she’s got skin in the game.

And though her fire is ultimately fueled by others’ success, there is a caveat—she wants to see the startups hang their signs locally. 

“Let’s create an opportunity for businesses to start and grow right here in Chapel Hill,” Dina says with unbridled enthusiasm. 

Cheers to that.