August 7, 2013
In July, Durham got a boost to its startup scene with a 22,000-square-foot hub called American [email protected].
The space holds 40 startups, spread across coworking space and small private offices. They work alongside nonprofits, other businesses, and universities like North Carolina Central. But the startup vibe dominates: the building features a 50-foot slide, a giant Mayor McCheese head, and The Vault: a former bank vault now equipped with TVs, video games, and hangout space. At night, American [email protected] opens up to the community for networking events.
This is American Underground’s second hub, after the @American Tobacco location opened in 2010. That 26,000-square-foot space holds larger startups (around 10 people), NC State University, and the Triangle Startup Factory accelerator.
The motto of North Carolina is “To be rather than to seem,” and American Underground takes that to heart. Chief strategist Adam Klein is trying to combat some of the hype in the startup scene by encouraging entrepreneurs to solve real problems.
“Startups are trying to get as many users as possible and not necessarily focusing on revenue or sales,” says Klein. “What we’re really trying to instill in the companies is building not just a cool technology or interesting app, but a business with the fundamentals of revenue and customers.”
North Carolina-headquartered companies like SAS and Red Hat have done just that, building successful (though not necessarily sexy) businesses. They paved the way for a new wave of startups – over 100 – who have set up shop in downtown Durham to take advantage of the growing startup culture and the city’s abundant creative class. Now, the city center bustles with coffee shops, a beautiful performing arts center, and the shouts of minor league baseball games – a far cry from the Durham of a decade ago.
“The joke is that 10 years ago you could lay down on Main Street in Durham at lunchtime and not worry about getting hit by a car,” says Klein. “It was just an old tobacco town that had fallen on hard times and hadn’t really found its momentum.”
Universities have a role to play in the revitalization, with Duke and Chapel Hill (in addition to the ones mentioned above) working with American Underground. Durham also boasts the largest research park in the United States called Research Triangle Park, home to IBM, Cisco, GlaxoSmithKline, and Syngenta, among others.
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