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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina Launch Pad gives startups a boost

From left: Scott Kleist, Lakulish Antani, and Eric McAfee in the Carolina Launch Pad.

Four startups – Gift Boogle, Prepped, Queue and Students and Teachers Employing New Criteria in Learning – make up the new group of entrepreneurs joining Carolina Launch Pad, UNC’s pre-commercial technology startup incubator, for the coming year.

Started in 2009 by Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), the Office of Technology Development (OTD) and Kenan-Flagler Business School, Carolina Launch Pad helps faculty, students and staff turn their ideas and prototypes into viable businesses.

In addition to office space with advanced technologies and supplies, each company has the chance to consult RENCI technical staff, many of them experts in their fields, and learn from the professionals with OTD, Kenan-Flagler and the local business community.

“What we’ve seen is a growing culture which supports entrepreneurship in Chapel Hill,” said David Knowles, director of Carolina Launch Pad and RENCI’s director of economic development and engagement. “A lot of people thought they’d have to leave the area to start a company. Carolina Launch Pad keeps the job-creating entrepreneurship here.”

A ROOM OF THEIR OWN

A group is ready for the launch pad when members have sophisticated technology and a clear sense of why having a physical space is the logical next step, said Knowles.

“It’s a bad thing to spend money on space at the wrong stage of a company. When you’re starting a company, every dollar is precious. Every thought that is spent on finding support and infrastructure is not spent on activity.”

Carolina Launch Pad is an extension of RENCI’s office, where startups can work down the hall from those who can answer their questions. When current launch pad participant Impulsonic, Inc. had performance questions about how fast their algorithm could run on computing systems, RENCI had experts in that field.

RENCI was launched in 2004 as a collaborative effort involving UNC, Duke University and N.C. State University. RENCI develops and deploys the latest technologies for research discoveries and practical innovations to solve critical issues in the state and beyond. RENCI and Carolina Launch Pad support the Innovate@Carolina Roadmap, UNC’s plan to help Carolina become a world leader in launching university-born ideas for the good of society.

“Prior to setting this up in 2008, there was not a space where the entrepreneurial and information technology community could intersect,” Knowles said. “Having a supportive atmosphere different from your academic day job is necessary. You can put on your business hat as soon as you walk in.”

Anish Chandak is CEO and Chief Technology Officer of Impulsonic, Inc., which develops software tools that synthesize and propagate sound in video games and acoustics design. As Chandak finished his doctorate in computer science at UNC last year, he and his business partner, Dinesh Manocha, Phi Delta Theta/Matthew Mason Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, felt their product, years in the making, was almost ready for the commercial market.

Carolina Launch Pad freed them from finding and funding a workspace when what they really needed to do was buckle down for marathon coding sessions.

“We were focused on the work instead of the details, and the money we would have spent on finding a place to work could go into the startup,” Chandak said. “So, in that way, Carolina Launch Pad is really investing in us.”

Impulsonic, Inc. recently won a $40,000 grant from NC IDEA, a non-profit organization created to serve as a catalyst for young, high-growth, technology companies in North Carolina and will move out of the launch pad in August.

ACCELERATING IDEAS

A year where entrepreneurs aren’t worried about rent, space and resources could mean their businesses take off earlier, Knowles said.

Altometrics, founded by UNC computer science graduate Jeff Terrell, was recently awarded a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation that will help develop cloud computing performance monitoring applications. The Durham-based firm is hiring employees.

Sqord, founded by Kenan-Flagler MBA graduate Coleman Green, is an online social game that encourages kids to be more active. Sqord recently won a $50,000 prize in the Active Schools Acceleration Project/Child Obesity 180 competition that will advance their work as they leave the launch pad this year.

“This is the exact kind of outcome we want to receive, where having Carolina Launch Pad was critical to being viable on the outside,” Knowles said.

This year Eric McAfee, CEO of Gift Boogle, will balance his startup at Carolina Launch Pad with his job as an applications analyst at the Friday Center. A 1991 Carolina graduate, McAfee developed his skills as a programmer at companies such as IBM and Cisco before coming to work in 2008 on campus, where he learned about Launching the Venture, a series of courses that help faculty, staff and students turn new ideas into viable ventures.

McAfee had a startup a decade ago that faltered in the economic downturn, and the courses convinced him he was ready to try again. Gift Boogle is a web-based app that connects gift givers and receivers to the perfect gifts by analyzing the content and keywords – which indicate interests, preferences and upcoming life events – in their social media profiles.

Carolina Launch Pad will enable McAfee and co-founder Scott Kleist, a recent Kenan-Flagler graduate, to elevate Gift Boogle from its current home – the four servers humming in McAfee’s dining room.

“You go in there, and it looks real,” McAfee said. “You have instant credibility working in a place like that.”

At the end of the year, McAfee wants to see that Gift Boogle, which will soon enter a beta-testing phase, has made gift giving more meaningful. And he’d like to be able to point back to UNC.

“I want to say, ‘Look at this place. Look what you can do here,’” McAfee said.