College Towns Are Next Big Thing for Entrepreneurship

LaUNCh Chapel Hill


By Laurie Paolicelli

With students and recent graduates all over the country experiencing startup fever, college towns are the next big thing for entrepreneurship. Even though nearly 47% of venture capital deal value in the U.S. goes to the West Coast, other startup hubs are rising. Cities such as Chapel Hill offer burgeoning and diverse economies with a dense concentration of college students. Along with lower costs of living, the talent and technology emerging from college towns has become a magnet for startups and VC dollars.

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LaUNCh Chapel Hill

“We have been working more than 6 years to nurture entrepreneurs that start here and helping them to stay here,“ says Dwight Bassett, Economic Development Director for the Town of Chapel Hill. More than 97 companies have been served by Launch Chapel Hill and they have raised over $20 million to support their initiatives,”

Launch Chapel Hill is a unique collaborative investment by UNC, the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County, and a generous private donor which was formed to develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem within Chapel Hill, Orange County, and the region. Steve Brantley, Orange County Economic Development Director, and Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill Economic Development Officer, are pleased with the successes of Launch and how it’s translating to the surrounding communities.

Chapel Hill’s Cost of Living

As the cost of living and job competition increases in Silicon Valley, many companies and venture capitalist firms are investing in college towns.

The overall cost of living in San Francisco is 60% higher than the national average, according to PayScale, with housing a whopping 165% above the average. Looking at other college towns, like Michigan for example, the cost of living is 9% lower than the national average, and communities there have received $1.4 billion in startup investment in the past five years, according to a Pitchbook Report on VC ecosystems.

“We knew it was important to look at Chapel Hill’s cost of living for start-ups so we commissioned a research report to compare our peer cities, including Berkley, Cambridge, and Boulder to Chapel Hill. “It’s worth noting that 100 is always the benchmark, so anything above 100 is over the national average and under is under the national average,” explained Basset.

View the Full Report Here (PDF).

But being strategically located is not enough. Universities must provide programs and resources that promote and foster an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Student entrepreneurship has increasingly become a value proposition of college in an age where people are questioning the value of higher education. Universities that have strong entrepreneurial ecosystems gain the benefit of being highly desired by college applicants.

Judith Cone, Vice-Chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development

Judith Cone Leading the Way at UNC

Cone is Vice-Chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development. She leads Innovate Carolina, the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneursh

“At UNC-Chapel Hill, we have seen the interest and excitement that people have for innovation and entrepreneurship soar over past decade,” said Judith Cone, Vice-Chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development. “From launching new companies to taking new technologies to market to designing social impact initiatives, innovators are energized across all corners of campus. The University and local leaders are working together to co-create new solutions that help the entrepreneurial impact of students, faculty, alumni, and others flow into the community in exciting ways.”


Local Start Up

Terra Dotta, an education technology firm with UNC-Chapel Hill roots, was founded by its CEO, Brandon Lee and its Chief Strategy Office, Garrett Christian sixteen years ago.

They are former technology coordinators at UNC-Chapel Hill. While working at UNC, Lee and Christian assisted professors and graduate students in implementing technology in the classroom. And they continued to work with the university when they left for their startup, assisting UNC’s Office of Study Abroad in automating its student application process.

The company’s application management software is now utilized by more than 560 educational institutions and businesses.

Orange County Small Business Loan Program

Steve Brantley, Orange County Economic Development Director

Other helpful resources include Orange County’s Small Business Loan Fund, which was established several years ago by the county’s Economic Development department to support the growth of local businesses and is available to Orange County residents with an equity contribution of at least 10% in the business. Small businesses are commonly considered to be the main jobs creation force in the economy – according to the Small Business Association office of advocacy, small businesses have generated between 60% and 80% of net new jobs annually over the past 10 years, therefore one of the most effective means of creating jobs is to provide these small businesses with much needed capital.

Orange County Takes Root

With a strong history in education, one more time Chapel Hill is an ideal place for startups to take root and grow.

Related Links

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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