UNC-Chapel Hill to open new innovation hub for startups

The University of North Carolina, in partnership with Cary’s Grubb Properties, is developing a new “innovation hub” in downtown Chapel Hill to support entrepreneurs and local startups.

UNC’s Board of Trustees and Board of Governors each approved the 20,000-square-foot space at 136 Rosemary Street in separate votes over the last two weeks. The building will host Innovate Carolina — a UNC-Chapel Hill department that promotes company development — and select area businesses.

The hub may expand into adjacent buildings over the coming years, according to Michelle Bolas, chief innovation officer for UNC-Chapel Hill and executive director for Innovate Carolina.

“So this is not a typical coworking space that you would find kind of in the market,” Bolas said. “We will offer coworking opportunities to our startups, members of our university community and the local community, but really what this is about is a highly curated environment … where we’re able to facilitate partnerships with industry, with strategic partners in the nonprofit community, develop projects together, work on innovation, talent, preparedness and provide technical expertise.”

Businesses headquartered at the innovation hub, which is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2023, will have access to UNC’s complete suite of development services, including a startup accelerator program and talent recruiting.

Bolas anticipates some of the state’s 446 active, UNC-affiliated startups will capitalize on the innovation hub’s growth services to hasten their development.

“We would really like those, or at least a fraction of those, to co-locate together within our innovation hub,” Bolas said, “to leverage the talent, leverage our ability to help them with mentors, with investors and advisers, generally to have access to university expertise.”

Centralizing promising startups in downtown Chapel Hill will also improve companies’ access to prospective investors.

“This will really give us again a place where (investors) know that they can come on a continuing basis to meet and have access and insight into emerging UNC-affiliated and local companies,” Bolas said. “And the investor community generally is very excited about that.”

The Triangle has long attracted established companies from across the technology world, Bolas said. But she hopes the innovation hub will make Chapel Hill and surrounding areas more hospitable to little-known startups.

“I think there’s this premise with RTP as this park-like setting where the emphasis was on recruiting large corporate presences to the state,” Bolas said. “But we’ve seen over the past decades the importance of the startup sector for the U.S. economy overall… Universities have a significant role to play in spinning out technologies, strengthening and de-risking them.”

This story was originally published April 11, 2022 7:00 AM.

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Lars Dolder is a business reporter at The News & Observer. He covers retail, technology and innovation.