CHAPEL HILL — The Launch business incubator is one piece of an economic plan, but it shows what the town, county and university can do together, officials said at an open house Wednesday.
“We can make businesses work here in Chapel Hill. We can keep working businesses here in Chapel Hill. We can create an economic climate that will allow them to grow and create the economic diversity and commercial activity that we know we can sustain,” Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.
The West Rosemary Street incubator officially opened in February. Eighteen businesses now call it home, including two that moved in Wednesday, said Launch manager Dina Mills. The companies offer a range of products and services, from waterless toilets to acoustics software and a gifting website. They pay rent on a sliding scale and are selected through a competitive process.
Jim Kitchen is the incubator’s first entrepreneur-in-residence. The companies also have the support of students, staff and resources from UNC’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Chancellor Holden Thorp said the venture has been a hugely successful partnership and reflects a lot of the town’s pent-up enthusiasm. He was especially proud to see a former student, Betty Cogdell, making a go of her dream to sell gluten- and dairy-free baked goods.
Thorp’s advice to potential entrepreneurs: “It’s a lot harder to do than you think it’s going to be, and a lot of people who quit don’t realize how close they might be to the goal line. If you can find a way to keep going, it’s always worth it.”
Mills, the creator of LunaPops frozen treats, said she expects the initial businesses to grow, hire more people and move into other spaces around town. She also wants to see them to return to Launch to mentor others, she said. The idea of giving back is what drew her to her current job, she said.
Many attending Wednesday’s open house shared her goal.
Lisa Taylor, a certified public accountant, and Ryan Mayer, director of marketing, said they wanted to see how their company, Blackman and Sloop, could help with pro bono accounting, tax and other financial support. The company’s owners are tired of seeing businesses leaving Chapel Hill for other cities, they said.
“We wanted to give back to the community, and we believe in the project,” Taylor said.
The public-private Launch venture is located in a 3,500-square-foot space that previously was home to local marketing agency 3 Birds, also is backing the project. Chapel Hill and Orange County are splitting the rent – $280,000 over nearly four years – and Triangle Office Equipment donated the workspaces.
The project also was made possible with help from the Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership and Becker family, who provided the initial funding in memory of their daughter Cara Becker.
Liz Morris, owner of Sanitation Creations, just finished the prototype Monday for her waterless toilet – the Dungaroo. She has been working on the project for two years.
From her office at Launch, Morris said she wants to help the 2.5 billion people around the world who lack adequate sanitation, as well as those who are seeking a solution for boats, recreational vehicles, vacation homes and work sites. Her first customer is an Outer Banks rental company, and she is talking with others about Cambodia, Honduras and Peru, she said.
Although it looks like an ordinary toilet, the Sanitation Creations model seals waste in a special bag treated with urea, which kills bacteria and blocks odors. Urea is a chemical found in urine. The toilet can hold up to 100 bags, or a week’s worth of waste, before being emptied.
Being at Launch has many advantages, Morris said. The biggest is having other entrepreneurs just a step away, she said.
“It’s the community. It’s being able to talk to people. It’s being able to shoot off ideas,” Morris said. “It was a way to learn from other companies and their mistakes.”