Pioneering the Innovation District

Credit the JOBS Act for two recent Carolina grads stepping off a clear path to success and choosing to pioneer Chapel Hill’s fledgling Innovation District.

Then-President Obama signed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups legislation in 2012 to remove some obstacles to success for entrepreneurs. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s new regulations were finally enacted in May 2016, just as Aditya Badve was wrapping up his junior year at UNC.

The new regulations allowed startups to use crowd-funding to attract investors. Badve returned for his senior year with an idea for a website that made it easier for investors and startups to connect with one another. He tapped his classmates Sifron Benjamin to work on tech issues and James Shea to handle the investment side. They took their company, NanoVest, through the LaUNCh program even as Badve and Benjamin prepared for more conventional careers.

Come May 2017, Badve had a job trading for JPMorgan and Benjamin went to work for Deutsche Bank. Shea went back to school and left NanoVest.

But the possibilities inherent in NanoVest continued to intrigue Badve and Benjamin. They left their high-potential jobs and worked full time on NanoVest.

Their business has created an online venue where investors, startups and ancillary services can connect. Investors and startups upload their preferences to the NanoVest website, and Badve and Benjamin use a machine-learning algorithm to find matches whose interests align. NanoVest is encouraging more investors and startups to sign up on the website, because the bigger the pool of candidates, the greater the chance of finding a good match. NanoVest is open to partnerships with providers of ancillary services such as designers, marketers, lawyers and accountants.

On Thursday, Sept. 7, NanoVest will host a sort of speed-dating event for investors and startups to scope one another out and perhaps find an interesting match. The event is invitation-only, and all 24 seats are filled. The response was so positive that NanoVest likely will have more of these face-to-face meetings.

Badve and Benjamin recruited a few others with skills that will help NanoVest succeed, and downtown property owner Antoine Puech rented the now five-member team office space in the new Innovation District with flexible, affordable terms. Small, inexpensive office space or co-working space with short-term leases and close enough to campus that the students who work for startups can walk to work is critical to the success of entrepreneurial businesses that are ready to launch.

The NanoVest founders would like to keep their company in Chapel Hill, in part because the town is small enough to enable them to try new things with less risk than in a city, and because they recognize Chapel Hill’s potential for an innovation industry.

“In the four years I’ve been in Chapel Hill,” Badve said, “I’ve seen tons of growth in the entrepreneurial community. We feel it’s best to stay in Chapel Hill and be part of growing the entrepreneurial community. We see the potential for Chapel Hill to be a very big entrepreneurial center.”
— Nancy Oates

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  1. Ashwin Badve

     /  September 6, 2017

    Great article to encourage local entrepreneurs!

  2. Alex

     /  September 7, 2017

    Where is the Chapel Hill “Innovation District”?

  3. Nancy

     /  September 7, 2017

    It’s still in the formation stage, but basically growing from a core at Church Street and West Rosemary. It includes Google (on Church) and LaUNCh (on W. Rosemary) and the small brick building at the corner that looks like a ranch house and at one point belonged to the pharmacy school. Now I believe it is being rented out to small technology businesses and entrepreneurs.

  4. plurimus

     /  September 8, 2017

    Based on Nancy’s post and the Town’s web site, I think there might be brand confusion.

  5. Gregg Gerdau

     /  September 8, 2017

    Allow me to help by first saying I am immensely proud of NanoVest’s rapid advancement and maturity. Their founders and staff represent themselves, their company, UNC and Chapel Hill very well. Second, the Innovation District (term coined by Judith Cone) currently comprises the buildings between West Franklin Street and West Rosemary Street, with Church Street on the East side and both LaUNCh buildings on the West side. It includes Google’s offices, 6 new wet labs under construction on Church Street, UNC’s Office of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (Judith Cone) on the main floor of 109 Church Street, and about 15,000 sq. ft. of startup friendly space available behind/below/above 206 West Franklin (where Lee Buck and Tim Toben started and grew their companies before selling them). And a Target with a Starbucks just across West Franklin Street! I understand another company from LaUNCh and about 20 staff are moving to the ground floor of Greenbridge where the yoga/barre studio was.