Bringing High Tech Business To Chapel Hill (Or Keeping It Here)

What must the town of Chapel Hill do to attract more high-tech commercial business?

In the ongoing debate over local development, that’s one of the biggest questions. Chapel Hillians have long been concerned about the fact that residential property owners bear the brunt of the town’s tax burden – which can drive up the cost of living in town and force lower-income residents out. One way to shift that burden is to encourage more commercial and retail development, and there is demand for it: local economic leaders have been sounding the alarm about a growing “retail gap” in Orange County, where residents go elsewhere to spend their money because the products they want aren’t available in town. (The old saw about Chapel Hill: it’s a basketball-nuts town, but where can you actually buy a basketball?) Not all retail development is desirable, though: a Walmart might move the tax-burden dial, for instance, but big-box chains don’t always mesh with Chapel Hill’s desire to promote sustainable, labor-friendly businesses. (Or, arguably, its elitism.)

That leaves commercial development – building offices, labs and manufacturing facilities for businesses, particularly high-tech businesses in emerging industries whose values align with Chapel Hill’s. There’s demand for commercial space too: HB2 notwithstanding, the Research Triangle as a whole has developed a nationwide reputation as a technology hub, and UNC produces a steady stream of high-tech local startups. Regionally, Google Fiber is laying the infrastructure to make the Triangle a tech hub, and AT&T is laying its own fiber network in Chapel Hill as well. The only problem is a lack of space: there may be lots of high-tech businesses who want to set up shop in Chapel Hill, but where’s the commercial space to house them all?

That’s an issue town officials have been tackling for years. Chapel Hill is now home to several incubators for local startups – most notably LaUNCh and the 1789 Venture Lab, both downtown – and the town has already approved the construction of about a million square feet of commercial space. But it’s not easy: some of that construction is on hold until developers secure committed tenants, and prospective tenants generally don’t want to have to wait before moving in. In addition, UNC pharmacologist Rudy Juliano says much of that new development would consist of “dry” office space – but high-tech businesses also need “wet” laboratory space as well. And while smaller companies generally seek Class B or Class C office space, almost all new commercial development is Class A – pricier than they can afford, with more amenities than they need. (Cities like Durham have been able to avoid this problem by renovating old warehouses and other pre-existing buildings – but Chapel Hill doesn’t have as many old warehouses to retrofit.)

With all this in mind, Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) is hosting a public forum this Tuesday, June 7, called “Nurturing High Technology Businesses in Chapel Hill.” Rudy Juliano will moderate the forum; panelists will include Michelle Bolas, UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as well as two UNC-based startup founders – Natalia Mitin, who decided to move her business out of Chapel Hill, and Jude Samulski, who decided to keep his business in town.

Rudy Juliano spoke last week with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


The public forum will take place from 6-8 pm at Extraordinary Ventures on S. Elliott Road. It’s free and everyone’s invited.

Dina Rousset: Hometown Hero

Dina Rousset is Tuesday’s Hometown Hero.

She is the director of Launch Chapel Hill.  Launch Chapel Hill is a start-up accelerator.  They work with high-potential entrepreneurs.  They provide support, tools, and knowledge needed to decrease risks, reduce go-to-market time, and accelerate growth.

Last year, Launch Chapel hill was ranked as one of the top 4 university business accelerators in North America.

Learn more about Launch Chapel Hill.

You can nominate your own Hometown Hero.  WCHL has honored local members of our community everyday since 2002.

Local Startup? Launch Chapel Hill Could Help

Launch Chapel Hill helps local startups get off the ground. And now, they’re looking for the next big idea.

Dina Rousset is director of Launch Chapel Hill. She said the program has help about 55 companies, the vast majority of which are still in business. And most of them, according to Rousset, stayed right here in the community.

Launch Companies usually start with a basic prototype.

“We are looking for them to beyond the idea phase. So they’ve actually come up with a prototype or what we call a minimally viable product and they’re really looking to build their team and scale their business, is where we help the best,” said Rousset.

Launch has sponsored businesses like UConnection, which helps college students find deals on food, nightlife and daily specials in their town through an phone app and physical coupons.

Rousett said they look for small teams working together, who have already done some research into their potential customer base and most importantly, are willing to learn.

Launch Chapel Hill brings in a new group of about 4 or 5  startup businesses a couple times a year. Those businesses attend workshops, receive guidance from ‘“resident entrepreneurs” and utilize office space in downtown Chapel Hill.

And it’s not just open to students.

“We are also open to members of the community, the town and county are partners as well. So we see about a third are students, a third are alumni, faculty, staff at UNC and a third are just community members who have an idea that they would like to move forward,” said Rousset.

The program is a partnerships between UNC, the town of Chapel Hill and Orange County. They also receive support from some private donors.

Last year, Launch Chapel hill was ranked as one of the top 4 university business accelerators in North America.

Even if you aren’t quite there with your prototype, Rousset and her team might still be able to help.

“Sometimes we find a team isn’t ready for Launch but we usually direct them to other resources, because our goal at the end of the day is to help support the growth of businesses in the area,” said Rousset.

If you think you have an idea for Launch Chapel Hill, apply online by May 22.

September 8, 2015: LaUNCh!

Meg and Aaron are joined by Dina Rousset, project manager for Launch Chapel Hill, which just welcomed seven new startups.

Launch Chapel Hill Accepts Seven New Business Startups

Launch Chapel Hill, an initiative of the town, the county and UNC to mentor budding entrepreneurs, has welcomed seven new companies in hopes of building the local business community.

“Launch Chapel Hill is a Partnership between UNC, the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County, the Downtown Partnership, and then we have support from a private donor out of Chicago,” said Dina Rousset, associate director of venturing and acceleration at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

“The doors opened in January of 2013. And the goal of it was to really support startups in Chapel Hill and Orange County, so that they would grow their businesses in this area.”

42 startups have come through the program, and seven new ones were recently accepted.

Local companies apply online, some make presentations, and between six and 10 are picked on the strength of their ideas by a selection team, every six months.

Companies are encouraged to stay in the area, but are not obliged to do so.

Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil described how the nurturing environment of Launch is likely to inspire loyalty among budding entrepreneurs.

“The first part of the business is an accelerator, and there’s a mentoring program, and the faculty at the School of Business are involved in helping the new businesses get the skills and resources they need to start their business, and then they can stay there a little while longer, as a shared working space, where they continue to get mentoring help” said Stancil. “And at the end of that time, hopefully, they would be strong enough to go out on their own.”

Launch Chapel Hill offers budding companies a professional environment, as well as community connections, and mentoring in public relations, marketing and legal issues.

Patrick Mateer is CEO of Seal the Seasons LLC, an Orange County-based frozen-food company with a processing plant in Hillsborough. He was raised in Chapel Hill and graduated from UNC just two months ago.

His company is one of seven to be accepted by Launch recently.

“We partner with local farmers to freeze, market and distribute local fruits and vegetables, all year-round” said Mateer. “We’re currently freezing strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, broccoli and spinach. We then package it for retail sale.”

Operations for the company began just this past May, but planning began in 2013. Back then, Mateer was involved in a program with the Carrboro Farmers’ Market that provided healthy surplus food for low-income citizens. The idea for Seal the Seasons was to make such food available during the colder months as well.

Mateer said that once his company breaks even, 20 percent of profits will go toward providing healthy food to low-income households. Right now, Seal the Seasons is working toward wider distribution.

“We currently are selling food to Weaver Street Market, which is local, in Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” said Mateer, “and the Durham Co-Op in Durham. We expect to move to some of the bigger retailers this fall, when we’ve actually frozen all the products, which we’re doing right now.”

Seal the Seasons employs three full-time staffers, including Mateer; and three full-time equivalent jobs are staffed by eight part-time laborers.

Earl McKee is Chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. He’s a farmer himself, and a fan of Seal the Seasons, and the Launch program in general.

“That not only provides an opportunity for this beginning company to get their operation off the ground,” said McKee. “It also provides opportunities for local farmers in Orange County to increase their sales.”

Other newly accepted companies in the Launch program include BlipMe, a mobile app for sharing real-time locations; SWAP Socks, which packages and sells mismatched socks to help underprivileged people get eye care; Textile Solutions, which helps textile and polymer companies operate a little greener; Tribal Intel, which helps clients streamline sales processes; Trill Financial, a financial software company; and Waterless Buddy’s, a waterless car wash.

“GovCups” Event Seeks Innovative Ideas

The Town of Chapel Hill and Launch are teaming up to host an event called GovCups, to initiate creative ideas and services to help government.

GovCups is modeled after an event called 1 Million Cups, which promotes innovative ideas in business. Chapel Hill organizational effectiveness coordinator Rae Buckley says GovCups is designed to encourage local government employees to explore different ways of thinking and creating ideas.

“When I go to a 1 Million Cups event,” she says, “what I see is an entrepreneur who has identified a problem or a gap and is presenting a solution to it. And I think that’s a side of the brain we want our employees – and all of us – to be using as we go about our day-to-day business.”

Two pitches have been selected to present at the event. The Town invites members of the community to participate in the event by using the hashtage #GovCups, live tweeting the event and asking questions during the Q&A session.

The event will be Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 9 a.m. at Chapel Hill Residence Inn. Founder and CFO of 3-Birds Marketing, Len Wohaldo, will speak on being innovative, transparent and open in a startup company.

To learn more and to RSVP, contact Rae Buckley at 919-969-5007 or at

Launch and RTP also host 1 Million Cups events every Wednesday at 9 a.m.

Chapel Hill Hosts Triangle Entrepreneurship Week Events

CHAPEL HILL – For the first time, Triangle Entrepreneurship Week is coming to Chapel Hill. The event, now in its third year, hosts local leaders, investors, supporters and entrepreneurs, offering a time to network and share knowledge.

Dina Mills, Program Manager at the LaUNCh Chapel Hill business incubator, explains that Triangle Entrepreneurship Week used to hold events only in Raleigh and Durham.

“It’s really important for the entrepreneurial community because it shows the growing importance of Chapel Hill as a place for start-ups,” Mills says.

Activities across the Triangle run till the 13th, with a full day of events going on at both LaUNCh and its sister incubator, 1789, on Tuesday. The Town of Chapel Hill and Innovate @ Carolina are sponsors.

“In the morning [at LaUNCh], we will start a session on pitching and investors, and then we have a session on how your company can change the world, followed by a panel discussion with a number of lawyers who specialize in start-up law,” Mills says

Last year, TEW brought together more than 2,000 local entrepreneurs, and business owners attended 26 events in the area.

“Lots of great connections have been as a result of it, and that’s why we are really pleased to have it in Chapel Hill this year,” Mills says

Events are open to the public. For a schedule of events, click here.

UNC Grad Making Noise In Local Music Scene

Photo Courtesy: Catie King

CHAPEL HILL – Musician, entrepreneur and UNC alum Catie King has forged music and business together in a way that serves the community. King’s venture, Resound Magazine, is the final feature of our LaUNCh Chapel Hill summer series.

Check out Kings’ song, “Maybe Tonight,” on her second album Catch and Release.

When King isn’t working on her music, the Raleigh Native is busy in LaUNCh growing Resound Magazine, a national network of locally focused digital music magazines run entirely by student journalists.

“The way I like to put it is the local music scene here, and it seems in other localities, is that it is over-fragmented and under-served. Resound serves as the connective tissue between all of the parties participating in local music to create a dynamic, to create a dialogue, external and internal,” King said.

King said the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area has a flourishing music scene, but as an emerging artist, she had a hard time finding outlets to share her music.

“I thought about how it took a year and half to get my album reviewed by the Daily Tar Heel, and that seems a little ridiculous. And I still haven’t gotten a single play on XYZ [WXYC] which is a frustration shared by most UNC student [musicians]. Also with my experience of trying to find other musicians and other venues to play in, finally giving you the time of day so you can book a show. I was sitting back and trying to figure out why it took so long,” King said.

King wrote on the magazine’s web site that “every city has a soundtrack. It’s our job to play it.”  The magazine features traditional media coverage of the local music community, including news, reviews, and interviews in addition to multimedia and social content. King said she is launching the next branch of Resound Magazine at the College of Charleston and plans to add more colleges across the country in the coming months. She said she has a particular interest in colleges with music business programs.


The passion for music has always been there, King said, but she laughed about her road to becoming an entrepreneur, saying she stumbled “face first” into it. King, who graduated from UNC in May with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations and a minor in etrepenuership, took a course a couple of years ago called “Launching the Venture.” The class was taught by Ted Zoller, who oversees LaUNCh and serves as the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

“Without that course, I have no idea what I would be doing right now. It has connected me with dozens of important local entrepreneurs and experts. I have the materials and the know-how to be able to execute on the idea. I didn’t have that a year ago,” King said.

King launched Resound in April of 2012, and when the opportunity to be a part of LaUNCh Chapel Hill came about this past spring, she knew it would lead to great opportunities for growing her venture.

“I think the best part about, especially being around such young minds, is it gives you a sense of possibility that you don’t have otherwise,” King said. “You feel unhinged and able to dream past your original vision. I try to get in here as early as I can everyday to try to convince myself that I have a real job and everyone keeps asking me, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ And I hope that’s the question for decades to come.”

If her world weren’t already busy enough, she released her third album, Suspended EP, in May. This month King returned from a trip to Los Angeles, California, where she met with a record executive in the music industry and also explored opportunities to expand Resound.

You can catch King live on August 29 as part of the Oak City 7 concert series in Raleigh.


Hear the radio version of this story below:

UNC Grad Is Changing Doctor Accessibility

Photo Courtesy: Keona Health

CHAPEL HILL – We all try to avoid doctor visits as much as we can, but sometimes it’s urgent, and we need answers quickly.

UNC graduate Oakkar Oakkar developed an innovative software program, Keona Health, which he says will help you reach your doctor online. As part of our summer series on young entrepreneurs in Chapel Hill, Oakkar’s start-up is this week’s featured venture from the business incubator LaUNCh Chapel Hill.

“We actually help the practices to put down the phone so that they can actually focus on direct patient care. We provide the patient with an intelligent way to report the symptoms using the web and mobile. We extract the health history directly from their health record,” Oakkar says.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal featuring Keona Health, patients are phoning their doctors more than ever. Phone calls to physician practices have increased between 25 and 50 percent since 2008. Doctor’s offices and hospitals are struggling to manage the calls. 

This is where Keona Health comes in. The program offloads phone calls onto to the clinic’s website, tracking and organizing each inquiry, helping the patient report their question.

“What we have is something personalized, something very meaningful about you and your healthcare,” Oakkar says. “Every single encounter is reviewed by your own provider before they get back to you.”


Oakkar, 34, graduated from UNC in the spring with a Master’s in Clinical Informatics. Continuing his education, though, was not the only reason he came to Chapel Hill.

He was born in Burma and later moved to Hawaii. When he was 19, he moved to Honolulu to attend the University of Hawaii. Years later, he had the idea for Keona Health, which means God’s gracious gift in Hawaiian. He wanted to develop the start-up simultaneously while going back to school, so Oakkar applied to both UNC and Duke.

“Duke accepted me first, and then when I got interviewed at UNC, they were like, ‘Hey, you are an entrepreneur? If you come here, we will actually nourish your idea in developing your company. We can get you some funding from the National Institute of Health and then spin off a company from here.’”

After hearing what Carolina had to offer, he turned Duke down.

Oakkar then met with Javed Mostafa, the Director of the Carolina Health Informatics Program, who eventually played a vital role in kick-starting Keona Health. Mostafa spoke with Oakkar about Chancellor Thorp and his entrepreneurship initiatives at UNC.

“I was just so hooked. I was like, ‘Alright. Sign me up!’ And the next day, before I even started school, we founded a company.”

Chancellor Thorp put Oakkar in touch with his cousin Dr. John Thorp, Professor and Director of UNC Women’s Primary Healthcare, and Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Keona Health then received $150,000 in funding from the NIH and since has received an additional $550,000 from other government grants and early-stage investors.

Current partners and customers include UNC Obstetrics and Tulane University. Oakkar says the company is also in talks with Columbia University Hospital and North Shore-LIJ.

He just partnered with Allscripts Healthcare Solutions, Inc., and the Keona Health app will be featured in the Allscripts app store. Oakkar says it could be a multi-million dollar opportunity.

“We have all these top-leading hospitals in the pipeline, so we are going to be in a different stage and a different stage of the company in a few months,” Oakkar says.

Oakkar says health care is moving into the digital age, and he is riding on top of the wave.

LaUNCh Profile: STENCIL Aims To Lower Drop Outs

Pictured: Wooten; photo courtesy STENCIL

CHAPEL HILL – Close to 13,500 high school students dropped out of North Carolina public schools in 2012, according to state records.  UNC graduate Julian Wooten developed innovative software program, STENCIL, which he says will help lower that number.

As part of our summer series on young entrepreneurs in Chapel Hill, Wooten‘s start-up, STENCIL, is this week’s featured venture from the business incubator LaUNCH Chapel Hill.

Through tracking data, STENCIL, or Students and Teachers Employing New Criteria in Learning, can alert teachers, administrators and parents if a student is likely to drop out. It takes into account patterns like frequent absents, GPA’s below a certain mark, and excessive disciplinary incidents.

“In addition to helping manage student information, it also has an algorithm that predicts if a student will drop out of school. That was the original incarnation of STENCIL,” Wooten says.

During his own collegiate studies, which included summer teaching stints and internships, Wooten says he was troubled by a statistic he came across: one out of every four high school students will drop out.

As Wooten crafted STENCIL, he realized it could be more than just an algorithm.

“I thought, ‘Why don’t we develop this to be an analytics suite so we can do more?’ We can track what students are learning and what needs to be re-taught. We can also tweak the algorithm to not just being drop-out prevention, but also if a student is just in trouble academically.”

STENCIL is launching pilot programs in August at the North Carolina School of Science and Math and the UNC School of Public Health for its leadership program. Wooten says there’s been interest from public schools in the state as well.

Wooten, who graduated in 2008 with degrees in biology and chemistry, credits a UNC entrepreneurship competition for helping to kick start STENCIL in 2011.

“Actually, my business was born out of the Carolina Challenge,” Wooten says. “If I didn’t have all of these tools here, we probably wouldn’t have been able to start as fast as we have and to also be as far along as we’ve come. It’s amazing.”

Wooten, in addition to running STENCIL, went back to school for a graduate certificate in Nanomedicine and is now pursuing his MBA from the Kenan-FlaglerBusinessSchool.

He says the local efforts of business incubators like LaUNCh Chapel Hill are already making an impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Triangle.

“The great thing now is that there is so much energy. There are so many people excited. There is so much visibility. There’s so much networking going on now,” Wooten says. “And a lot of those big ideas that you see in Durham and Raleigh, a lot of the people have come from Chapel Hill.”

Wooten has already had a big year in funding and recognition. He was named as one of the Top 40 Under 40 Entrepreneurs in the Triangle, and in February, won the 2013 Governor’s Emerging Issues Prize for Innovation. Gov. Pat McCrory presented him the award.