Packard Place Serves as Hub for Charlotte’s Emerging Startup Scene

When people think of startup culture in North Carolina, what usually comes to mind is the Research Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill and all of the activity surrounding the technology spun out of nearby universities.

But there’s also an emerging startup scene taking root in Charlotte, the most populous city in the state and the headquarters of many huge financial institutions, including Bank of America.

A key anchor of this growing innovation community is Packard Place, a startup hub, community center, and incubator that allows entrepreneurs to work in close proximity to one another, doles out coaching and mentorship, sponsors events and networking opportunities, and helps shepherd tech startups to market. Packard Place is currently working with about 100 startups, which organizers say makes it the largest incubator outside of the Boston, New York, and San Francisco areas.

In 2008, Charlotte was hit particularly hard by the recession, says Packard Place community manager Sophia Smith. The city had the fifth highest unemployment rate in the U.S. Studies were commissioned by local civic leaders, Smith says, and the results all indicated that entrepreneurship was one of the keys to economic recovery.

In May 2011, the city council in Charlotte asked its staff to figure out what it could do to support the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. It was a fairly unusual request—city councils don’t normally get so intimately engaged with nurturing startups. Natasha Warren, who serves as small business services manager for the city and acts as a liaison to city council, worked with other staffers for a year to formulate a plan. It was eventually called the High Growth Entrepreneurship Strategy and formally adopted in 2012.

“The strategy has a few objectives: Make sure the city is doing whatever it can to attract high-growth entrepreneurs to the city, and keep the ones we already have,” Warren says. “A lot of it has to do with money and how to keep entrepreneurs here. We’re also interested in getting more venture capital here. We know we’ve got UNC-Charlotte, which is a budding research university that is growing rapidly, so we also want to increase federal research dollars.”

Warren says the city of Charlotte has a three-pronged approach to stimulating innovation: The city council and mayor take an active role in telling the story of Charlotte’s startup community to raise the profile of the city locally and nationally; the city and other local governmental agencies make a concerted effort to engage startups when it comes to procurement and solving local civic problems; and, through a fund established with the Foundation for the Carolinas, the city supports the organizations that help startups succeed. Charlotte’s city council voted to contribute $500,000 to the seed fund, which matches money raised by the community dollar-for-dollar.

“Now, we’re working to create an index of the city’s high-growth startups,” Warren says. “As we complete that work, we’ll be ready to start fundraising in earnest.”

As the public rallied around the idea of increasing entrepreneurship in Charlotte and the city put some skin in the game by allocating money to the startup ecosystem, a local couple had a vision for an old building called the Packard Place.

Packard Place was built in 1928 in the heart of Uptown Charlotte as a parking garage and showroom for Packard automobiles, but had long since become underutilized. In 2011, husband and wife team Dan Roselli and Sara Garces used local and federal incentives to buy Packard Place and transform it into the hub it is today.

Alumni of RevTech Labs
A variety of startups have participated in the Packard Place accelerator program; here are six.
AutopilotThe Autopilot app matches riders and drivers on demand.
ProctorFree is identity verification and student authentication software meant to deter cheating and fraud in online education.
PlateShare crowdsources money to feed the homeless by allowing users to round their restaurant bills up to the nearest dollar and donate the extra money.
AlcohootAlcohoot is a smartphone-based breathalyzer test that can be used to measure blood alcohol content while out at the bar.
Looking for a workout buddy? Sociercise helps connect fitness buffs online.
SavedPlusSimilar to Bank of America’s Keep the Change program, SavedPlus lets users round up transactions and divert a percentage of that money from their checking account to their savings account.

The 90,000-square-foot facility houses RevTech Labs, a three-month program focused on early-stage Web, mobile, and software startups (see table). RevTech Labs itself has three parts: an accelerator for startups that are already up and running, a 12-week incubator for earlier-stage startups still working on minimum viable product and gaining market traction, and QCFinTech, a program focused on innovating in the financial services sector.

Packard Place is also home to CLT Joules, an accelerator for energy startups; Queen City Forward, an initiative to grow and mentor startups engaged in social entrepreneurship; and even an art gallery. There is also co-working space available for a monthly fee to members of the public.

Smith says local corporations have demonstrated … Next Page »

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