Why Chapel Hill is Poised for a Business and Biotech Revolution
“While other cities are burning out, we’re heating up.”
-Doug Rothwell, Executive-in-Residence for Innovate Carolina
Longstanding History of Innovation in Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has always been a major contributor to the dynamic, innovative tech industry fostered in the Research Triangle. Since Research Triangle Park was established in 1958, there have been 911 startups founded at UNC, with over $18 billion in total funding raised. UNC’s strong academics have groomed thousands of innovative minds to create their own companies.
For the longest time, that meant moving to the larger cities of Raleigh and Durham, or elsewhere across the country. Currently, there are 450 UNC startups scattered throughout 31 North Carolina counties alone.
But what if a company could set up shop right in UNC’s backyard?
That’s a question the Town of Chapel Hill began exploring over a decade ago, and it has led to a partnership with the University that is transforming the town into a regional force to be reckoned with.
“We have been losing companies and talent to Durham and RTP for decades and building the Innovation District will allow us to retain companies and jobs,” explains Dwight Bassett, the Town’s Director of Economic Development and Parking Services. “We need the jobs and the tax base that can come when these companies can grow here locally. This is an exciting new direction for the Town and business community.”
The Business Opportunity of Planting in Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill is not new to hosting tech companies; Google has had an office on Franklin Street for nearly twenty years. But while UNC ranks near the top for overall research, the Town lags behind Raleigh and Durham in corresponding jobs.
Like any strong partnership, the shared mission consists of goals that benefit the Town and University in their own way. UNC wants to maintain their strong network of burgeoning entrepreneurs while the Town hopes to keep that talent close to home and to create a downtown that is vibrant year-round, not just during the semester.
The result? Exciting opportunities for young and established tech companies to consider Chapel Hill as their destination.
The partnership’s first major accomplishment came in 2013, with the establishment of Launch Chapel Hill, a business accelerator that has helped jumpstart nearly 200 ventures focused on tech, healthcare, and other areas. Over the past decade, these companies have raised over $100 million and employ over 1,200 people. The accelerator is currently funded by the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County, and UNC-Chapel Hill.
The Town and University’s partnership advanced in 2021 when they developed the Downtown Together Innovation Strategy, an outcome of the Carolina Economic Development Strategy. This strategy seeks to beautify downtown Chapel Hill and establish the town’s first Innovation District–a major step that will help Chapel Hill close the tech gap with Raleigh and Durham.
The district is anchored in two adjoining buildings on 137 Franklin and 136 Rosemary Streets, occupying 118,000 total square feet. They currently house Innovate Carolina and Launch Chapel Hill, who play vital roles in leveraging UNC’s deep talent well.
Innovate Carolina plans to activate their first floor space by hosting networking events and building a synergy between tech workers and like-minded companies such as Digital Health Institute of Technology and Leadership Triangle. They will serve as a concierge-type role in connecting graduates, entrepreneurs, and remote workers.
Companies Already Harnessing Chapel Hill’s Strategic Resources
The rest of the country is taking notice. An early company that jumped on board is California-based BioLabs, a co-working space for life science startups that will occupy the third floor of the main building. BioLabs will provide valuable wet lab space, which Chapel Hill was sorely lacking compared to Raleigh and Durham.
Longfellow Real Estate Partners, who have long been a presence in Durham, are breaking into the Chapel Hill market with plans for their own Life Sciences building at 306 West Franklin Street, providing more valuable space for a field that the Town would traditionally lose to their larger Triangle counterparts.
Major developments are also planned for 150 Rosemary Street, where the Town recently approved a 238,000-square-foot office building and wet lab facility that will include underground parking and ground floor space reserved for retail, restaurants, and a public plaza.
Young startups and entrepreneurs can also expect easier access into the market. According to Doug Rothwell, executive-in-residence of Innovate Carolina, “the spaces we’ll have downtown, young companies won’t have to sign a 10-year lease, they can go month to month.” That is a major advantage for nascent companies who are looking for an affordable foot in the door.
The Town is working with developers to accommodate the increase in workers calling Chapel Hill home. Chapel Hill’s Comprehensive Plan already calls for mixed-use development downtown, but they’re also adding apartments with age-minimums to attract workers and promote a Live Work Play environment downtown.
Industry-University Partnerships Fueling Chapel Hill’s Thriving Business and Tech Ecosystem
Rothwell says that while UNC has rightly prided itself on being a high-performing university, there should be more emphasis on career development. That’s where these partnerships and programs come in.
“There’s an opportunity here for companies to have an inside track to graduates who can showcase their work that they do,” he adds. “Maybe those students can go to a local company instead of somewhere else.”
Having a physical presence near UNC is powerful. The school confers 3,500 STEM degrees each year. In the 2022 fiscal year, UNC researchers were awarded 58 U.S. Patents and submitted for another 80 patent applications. They also worked on 140 invention disclosures. Nearby tech companies will have a direct connection to that talent pipeline, with the face-to-face contact so vital to networking and growth.
The strong partnership between the Town and UNC has helped create the critical mass needed to maintain a dynamic tech industry. Up-and-coming companies would do well to consider Chapel Hill as their home.
“The outlook for growth and business opportunities in Chapel Hill is exciting. Perhaps a resident has a son, daughter, or niece or nephew who will get to stay in Chapel Hill because of these developments,” says Bassett.
This article was researched and written by Sarah Greenberg, CEO/Founder of HeySarah.