Enterpreneurs offer ideas for Raleigh to attract start-ups

ccampbell@newsobserver.comSeptember 14, 2013 

— Entrepreneurs floated ideas for improving Raleigh’s climate for start-up businesses last week, including a new “signature attraction” and a road map for aspiring entrepreneurs.

The brainstorming session was part of the Raleigh Innovation Summit, the annual meeting for the Innovate Raleigh initiative founded by City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin and Terri Lomax of N.C. State University. About 250 business leaders attended the event, weighing in with suggestions for education, business development and community amenities.

The idea of a “roadmap to resources” topped the list of ways to improve the Triangle’s start-up culture. Many entrepreneurs, participants said, have a great idea for a company but don’t know where to get the necessary backing.

Having a centralized roadmap would show what the start-up process looks like and what resources are available locally. It could also attract entrepreneurs who aren’t yet sure where they’ll set up shop.

“I think that we’re still in an area where things seem fairly disconnected,” said Justin Miller, founder of WedPics, a photo-sharing app for weddings.

Miller knows that all too well. He started his company with employees working from his Raleigh home, but media publicity resulted in a zoning violation. He’s since moved to a Hillsborough Street co-working space, and his struggle attracted new investors.

Miller also said start-ups need more opportunities to partner with local universities on internship programs. “It can help groom these folks so when they graduate, you have a shoo-in to your company,” he said.

To lure entrepreneurs, Raleigh needs to turn one-time visitors into long-term residents. And while there’s plenty to do in the area right now, the city doesn’t have the sort of attraction that serves as a symbol to the rest of the country – Seattle’s Space Needle, for example.

“We need a signature attraction,” said Jason Hibbets, who works at Red Hat. “We want to one-up them and make it interactive.”

Baldwin piped in to suggest that the future Dorothea Dix Park could be that attraction. The city will renegotiate a lease or sale of the property with Gov. Pat McCrory within the next year; legislative attempts to revoke the city’s current lease fizzled earlier this year.

Innovation Summit participants also said the local education system needs an overhaul to help grow future entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, they said, must be willing to risk failure – something schools would tend to discourage.

“Our students, they’re not really taught to fail, they’re taught that there’s one right answer for everything,” said Megan Greer of N.C. State. “We need to make sure we’re infusing creativity through all academic disciplines.”

The recommendations from the Innovation Summit will be compiled into a report next month, and the Raleigh City Council will receive a copy.

Here are some of the other priorities from last week’s event:

• Develop a light rail system.

• Seek more frequent news coverage of the local start-up scene.

• Move Central Prison and find a better use for that valuable piece of real estate.

• Connect greenways, open spaces and bus routes to allow for seamless non-car transportation options.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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