Economic Transformation News

N.C. State incubator helps get student ventures off the ground

SOURCE:  The News and Observer 


RALEIGH -- Even as they prepare to graduate Saturday, some of the first students to use N.C. State University’s “Entrepreneurs Garage” are about to spin off a small wave of fledgling businesses they dreamed up and honed there.

The 2,000-square-foot space inside a building on Centennial Campus is a kind of incubator for student ventures. It features meeting rooms, a lounge area and space for building prototypes that includes woodworking equipment and gear for building electronic devices. There also are two machines that are helpful for rapid prototyping: a 3D “printer” that quickly makes objects that students design by computer and a digitally-controlled, ultra-precise laser cutter.

It opened in fall 2010. Since then, students in a variety of disciplines, from computer engineering to textiles to business management, have used it to tinker with prototypes for products, swap ideas and host business meetings.

They also have cross-pollinated in the kind of “beneficial collisions” of students with different backgrounds and interests that the Garage was, in part, created to foster.

The Garage is part of a larger culture of entrepreneurship at a land grant university long focused on disciplines such as agriculture and textiles that directly affect the state’s economy. In the past few years, NCSU has begun using its strengths in technology, engineering and science to underpin a new emphasis on growing companies from scratch.

In 2008 it established the cross-discipline Entrepreneurship Initiative to teach and foster a culture of startups across campus.

In 2010, university officials announced a goal to double the number of privately-owned companies being spun off from the university, opened an “innovation hub” to help companies get access to campus expertise and technology and to help faculty and staff get help for marketing their technologies or create new companies.

And Chancellor Randy Woodson announced a $2.5 million fund to help faculty bring their discoveries to market.

People with ‘spark’

That same year, the Entrepreneurship Initiative opened the Garage. One of the first to take advantage was Angela Hollen, a graduate student from Greenville in the College of Textiles, who will get her master’s degree Saturday and then continue work on her doctorate even as she and two partners launch a company called Spitter Spatter, which will sell eco-friendly antibacterial and stain-resistant clothing for infants and toddlers.

“I don’t think any of us came here thinking that we wanted to start a company, but the Garage in the past year and a half has created a circle of people who have that spark,” she said. “And it seems like new people are joining that group every week.”

Her company is now just weeks away from taking orders for its first collection via the Internet, Hollen said, and is already planning the rollout of its next lines, which could include adventurous approaches such as crowd-sourced graphics and glow-in-the-dark materials.

The Garage was underwritten by local software company Red Hat and named to evoke the now legendary garages where Apple and Hewlett-Packard got their starts. Indeed, those garages are stops on an annual Silicon Valley field trip the Entrepreneurship Initiative leads.

It’s open 24 hours a day, and among the 50 or so students currently signed up to use it are those working on products such as high-tech soles for athletic and military footwear; custom clothing aimed at sororities; and a networking site for young professionals.

The prototyping area is where a group of computer and electrical engineering students created a sophisticated combination of hardware and software to monitor and control energy use, which they called Green Energy Management System.

A broad appeal

The group, which plans to incorporate this summer, won a $4,000 prize for best design and prototype in the university’s entrepreneurship-focused Lulu eGames last week and is working with a consultant to set up a pilot project using their system at a factory in Eastern North Carolina, said Dreier Carr, one of the students.

The group – which comprises three students who graduate Saturday and one who did last year – plans to initially market the system to the owners of medium-sized factories, though it hopes to eventually expand to other users, such as schools, hospitals and homes, he said.

On several walls in the Garage are conventional and digital white boards for planning and brainstorming. Hollen used the digital ones to sketch out designs for a line of kids’ clothing.

And she and Carr said their companies used the Garage’s meeting areas to huddle with potential investors and other outsiders when they needed to project a more professional, legitimate feel than they might at, say, a students’ house.

The Garage has been an immense help, but the network the start-up oriented students there have created, and the broader one NCSU offers, is even more important, Hollen said. If you need some specialized advice or bit of knowledge, someone on campus likely has it.

“People have just been great about opening their networks to us,” she said.

The Garage also has given students intimate brushes with some of the most powerful networks in the tech world by hosting “fireside chats” between small groups of students and entrepreneurial superstars such as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and Bob Creeden, executive director of Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network.

The Garage has been a boon to students interested in becoming entrepreneurs and has proven the value of the concept of a space where they can meet, said Thomas Miller, who heads the Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“A lot of people thought we’d see only engineering students in the Garage, but it really has attracted students from across the university, and they help each other learn,” Miller said.

Often there are notices posted there for groups that need to add someone with skills they’re missing, such as computer programming or prototype construction.

“We have some who were passionate about building stuff, but had no idea how you would go about selling it, and others who had no idea how to go about putting together a prototype, but knew how to create a business plan,” Miller said.

Expansion planned

The current version of the Garage is temporary. The plan has always been to build one at least 10 times that size, but first, Miller said, the university has to find private donors to pay the $6 million-plus cost.

Even the small version, though, has created a sort of critical mass, Miller said, justifying plans for a larger version.

“For us, it has really validated this notion that physical proximity matters,” he said. “It proves that it’s important to have a place where those beneficial collisions will happen, instead of having students who are interested in entrepreneurship spread all over campus and not ever really having a chance to meet.”