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.

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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 an “eagerness” to get involved with Packard Place’s efforts, whether it’s through direct sponsorship as Bank of America has done with RevTech Labs, or lending talent to provide mentorship.

Justin Gaither, a recent college graduate, is the co-founder of a startup called eCampus Ventures, and he spent some time as a tenant of RevTech Labs this past spring. His company has created three apps targeted toward college students: Room Surf, Text Surf, and Join U. Gaither describes Room Surf as “like for finding compatible college roommates” that was recently highlighted in a Boston Globe article. Text Surf helps users find the lowest-priced textbooks, and Join U is a private social network for college students that includes a Tinder-like component for matchmaking.

Gaither ended up in Charlotte after his family moved to the city, and he says he was surprised to discover a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem there. “The vibe in Packard is really cool, and it’s the place to be for entrepreneurs,” he says. “I haven’t quite seen anything like it. It was a whole building filled with people like me going through the same challenges. I could build a business or collaborate with others to share ideas. It was a really great experience.”

His company, eCampus Ventures, made history this summer when it was selected as the first startup from the Southeastern U.S. to get on WeFunder, a site that allows accredited investors to put money into startups.

That’s progress, but Charlotte still has a ways to go before it will be seen as a prominent national startup hub. According to the National Venture Capital Association, 50 North Carolina startups received venture funding in 2013; only one of the startups was based in Charlotte. However, it’s clear the city now has the building blocks of a strong innovation community.

Gaither says the best part of his Packard Place experience was participating in RevTech’s demo day because “it was such a great feeling to have everyone in the community supporting us.” He’s staying in Charlotte for now, which means his stint at Packard Place had the effect organizers were hoping for.

“Before, we were sending all of our startups to San Francisco and New York,” Smith says. “But now, they’re staying here to work at the hub.”

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