Now Hiring: Community and Office Coordinator Position

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We need help! We’re looking for a talented go-getter to help us better serve our clients—the entrepreneurs and startups who are blazing trails and making a difference in our community.

Who are we?  Collectively, we are NC IDEA + Groundwork Labs + SoarTriangle.  We work closely together and are co-located at the American Underground in downtown Durham, amongst many of the entrepreneurs and startups we support.

You’ll be working on projects that range from really interesting to routine—things like building awareness of our programs through social media, monthly newsletters, and blog posts and helping make sure those programs run smoothly by helping with applications, scheduling, organization, and office coordination.

  • Do you enjoy variety in your work?
  • Can you expertly manage multiple projects in a fast-paced environment?
  • Are you often complimented on your relationship-building skills?
  • Can you read people’s minds and know what they need before they need it?
  • Do you have exceptional attention to detail?
  • Do you have social media, marketing and light tech experience (graphic design is a bonus skill)?
  • Do you have experience with content creation (e.g., newsletters, blogging, press releases) and tools like Salesforce, MailChimp, and WordPress?

If you answered these questions with a resounding “Yes!”, this may be a great opportunity for you. We offer a temporary full-time position with the possibility that it may become permanent. The hours are somewhat flexible (including occasional evening work) for the person who wants to be a part of helping people and companies succeed.

Please visit our websites to learn more about us.  If interested in applying, email a cover letter and your resume to so that we can learn more about you.  The deadline for resumes is January 31, 2016.

Happy New Year from Groundwork Labs Program Director, John Austin

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The start of a new year seems like a great time to thank the folks and teams with whom you have worked and acknowledge the major achievements of our companies. First, I’d like to thank the mentors, gurus, advisors, and the entire army of volunteers that make Groundwork Labs a great place for startups to accelerate their development.  We have an army of more than 50 people who give us anywhere from a few hours a year to a few hours per week.  Without them, Groundwork Labs doesn’t exist.  From all our teams, thank you.

Our mission is the same as NC IDEA, the foundation that funds our program: to help technology startups in North Carolina succeed. Unlike an accelerator, we don’t make an investment or take an equity stake in the companies we help.   We measure our program’s success by the revenue and number of jobs created by the entrepreneurs who have been in Groundwork Labs.  It’s still a bit early for either of those metrics to be meaningful, and so in the short term we are measuring the steps along the way: seed investments, grants, and acceptance into accelerators.

We have helped about 100 companies during our four years in existance.  We don’t expect every company that comes through Groundwork Labs to succeed—about half have ceased operations or are on their last legs.  But we’re not going to dwell on that. We’re going to celebrate the ones that are making some great progress.

  • Six companies won NC IDEA grants in 2015 (bringing our total to 14 – of the roughly 50 alumni who applied for a grant).  In the fall, Brim (Mark McNasby), MV Trak (formerly Imvere – Cindy Cone), Rheomics (Ricky Spero), SeaChange Technologies (Dipak Mahato), and back in the spring Essay Assay (Jamey Hiatt) and Urban Offsets (Shawn Gagne).
  • Four alumni participated in accelerators (bringing our total to 13): Cellbreaker (Jon Colgan) in 500 Startups, AnyCloud (Brian Jenkins) in The Startup Factory , SeaChange Technologies (Dipak Mahato) in Citrix Accelerator, and Healthy Bytes (Amy Roberts) in Blueprint Health.
  • Multiple companies raised seed or follow-on equity.  At the risk of missing some, a partial list includes: Essay Assay, iScribes, and Groundfloor, a company that raised a series A that pushed their total funding past $7 million.
  • FokusLabs (Rich Brancaccio) ran a successful kickstarter campaign, and (FINALLY – sorry, Rich, I can’t help it!) shipped their product the ReVibe.

We added some new things to our program this year:

  • Groundwork After Hours – A “weekend MBA” version of our standard program targeted at folks who cannot participate in our full time program.  One of the participants, MV Trak, subsequently won an NC IDEA grant, and another, RewardStock, raised a seed round.
  • IoT Hackathon followup – We partnered with RIoT and the hackathon they ran in the fall to provide a similar version of our program for the students who developed a product over the weekend. We’ll now spend some time with them helping them figure out whether they can build a business around their technology.
  • Reagan Reynolds joined our team as Community Manager and has made a huge difference in the organization and getting the word out about our teams—as well as doing the same for NC IDEA and SoarTriangle.
  • We’ve added a Developer-in-Residence position for each full-time cohort. The position is modeled after TechStars’ Hackstars.  Thanks to Tom Rau and Scott Williams for paving the trail on this—we found both talented individuals at local coding academy, The Ironyard.

Groundwork Labs is always on the lookout for startups at all stages who are seeking a collaborative community in which they can test their idea and reach their next goal.  Contact us at if you are interested.

Year End Thanks from Groundwork Labs Program Director

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I probably should have done this back at Thanksgiving—but the year-end seems like just as good a time to send out a word of “Thanks” to our community.

First of all – thanks to Reagan Reynolds, who joined our team this year as Community Manager and has made a tremendous difference in the organization of Groundwork Labs, getting the word out about our program, and freeing up my time to work more with the teams.  Not to mention all the things she is doing for NC IDEA and SoarTriangle.

Additionally, we have an army of volunteers—about 50 mentors, gurus, speakers, and advisors who give generously of their time to help our teams.  They work anywhere from a few hours each year to a few hours per week. Without our volunteers, Groundwork Labs doesn’t exist.

From all our teams, and the NC IDEA and Groundwork Labs staff, thank you.

With such a long list, there’s the risk that two things will happen: First, I will probably have left someone out – if I did that to you, apologies in advance. Second, if I call out a couple folks for special recognition, I’m liable to aggravate someone who thinks they should be on that list.  I’m willing to take that risk to mention two folks that have given way more time than any of us could ask for, and extend a special thanks to:

Lauren Whitehurst, who is here so often that she is sometimes referred to as John #2,

and Jonathan Prinz, who has spent hours above and beyond helping our companies find names and brands that make sense.

Groundwork Labs volunteers Durham NC startups James Avery Scott Barstow Laura Baverman Bill Bing Mike Bittle James Branigan Scott Bryant Esther Campi Jason Caplain Glen Caplan Danny Chu Joe Colopy Gart Davis Jan Davis Patrick Dempsey Jake Finklestein John Fogg Vickie Gibbs Brain Hassin Ed Holzwarth Mike Johnston David Jones Justyn Kasierski Keith Langbo Jeff Linsey Merrill Mason Jason Massey Robert McKenzie Taylor Minges Todd Mosier Beth Mullaney Mitch Mumma Mital Patel Joe Procopio David Rose Tom Rose Andy Roth Jonathan Schwartz Colin Shepherd Janice Smith Matt Tormellon Matt Williamson Ricci Wolman Matt Barber

Datafox Rates Durham in Top 10 in Best Cities to Found a Startup

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Datafox, a business intelligence firm, includes Durham in a data-compiled list of the top 10 cities to found a startup. According to the report, Datafox finds that a strong pull in Durham is the desire to build a business in a thriving community. Powered by research-based universities and a lively culturally-rich environment, Durham made #10 on the list for desirable location for startup founders.

Read the full report


Four Groundwork Labs Companies Receive NC IDEA Foundation Grant

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NCIDEA Foundation NC IDEA Foundation grant program durham nc startups durham nc North Carolina startups funding startups in NC

This week NC IDEA Foundation announced six recipients chosen out of the fall 2015 grant cycle. Out of those six companies, four are either Groundwork Labs alumni or are currently completing our program as part of the Winter 2016 cohort. Congratulations to the following Groundwork Labs teams on their success:


BrimBrim is the world’s first productivity network, connecting people in remote locations to collaborate on files, hold online video conferences and webinars, manage tasks, share and organize data. Brim combines communication, productivity and storage technologies in an all-in-one platform for temporary and persistent collaborations.

MV Trak (formerly Imvere)With about 25 million sports-related concussions going undetected every year, MV Trak measures head impact and rotation with 96.6% accuracy to give medical professionals and athletic trainers reliable, objective data to detect which athletes need to be further evaluated for concussion symptoms. MV Trak is an in-ear wearable technology, for both helmeted and non-helmeted athletes, allowing good decisions to be made about each athlete’s brain health.

RheomicsRheomics develops tools to improve sensitivity of blood diagnostics. With the company’s patented ASAP technology, their products can efficiently and affordably process much larger volumes of blood.

SeaChange TechnologiesSeaChange Technologies is developing an innovative technology for water purification and desalination. The company’s systems address the key drawbacks of existing desalination technologies, including intensive energy requirements, polluting brine wastewater byproduct and high maintenance costs.


The NC IDEA grant cycle is a very competitive process. Companies fill out an initial detailed application and undergo light due diligence in order to be accepted into the second round for consideration. During the second round, companies submit a report in greater detail and work directly with qualified MBA interns to complete a deeper due diligence process. Finally, companies pitch to a reviewer audience of North Carolina investors, mentors, and leaders in the startup community. The reviewers then vote and offer comments and insight that is considered in the final selection.

We are so proud of our alumni and this great achievement. We look forward to working alongside each of you as you continue to grow in the future.

Read the official press release here.

Groundwork Labs Alumni, GROUNDFLOOR, Secures $5 Million in Series A Round

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Groundwork Labs is excited to promote alumni startup, GROUNDFLOOR, and their recent success closing a $5 Million Series A round led by Fintech Ventures. According to this article on BusinessWire, the company plans to use the funds to scale lending operations and fuel nationwide expansion.

GROUNDFLOOR is the first and only real estate lending marketplace open to non-accredited investors.  Typical loans have returned 12 percent annually on a six-to-12-month term.

GROUNDFLOOR was founded in 2013 by Brian Dally and Nick Bhargava. The company is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia with a fast-growing team on a mission to reformat and open private-capital markets for the benefit of individual investors and the investments they fund.

Congrats, team!


A Letter from the NC IDEA Foundation Executive Director

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In tandem with the 2015 Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge, NC IDEA Foundation and Groundwork labs is participating in a holiday Food Drive for the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina. NC IDEA Foundation Executive Director, Sean O’Leary, has generously agreed to match donations. Please read his public call for donations below for more details.


Dear Entrepreneurs, ATC Community, Friends and Families,

One of the core characteristics that I see in today’s entrepreneurs is a desire to do ‘good.’ Certainly we all want to do ‘well’ in our businesses, but today’s entrepreneurs may be the most socially conscious group of entrepreneurs in the history of capitalism.

Doing ‘well’ to them means more then just building a successful business; it means doing ‘good’ by giving back. This concept resonates with the mission of the Food Bank—as what better way is there to give back than sharing a meal with someone in need? Let me put this in the form of an elevator pitch, a format familiar to our entrepreneurs and startup community:

The Problem Statement: There are 650,000 people who struggle with hunger everyday in the 34 North Carolina counties serviced by our Food Bank. (the TAM)

The Solution: Our Food Bank has built one of the most efficient and effective models to feed the hungry in our State.  Over the last year they provided 48 Million Meals through over 800 partner agencies, which include: soup kitchens, churches, and homeless shelters, just to name a few.

The Supporting Facts: This has been done while maintaining the most efficient operating model of any charity in the country, ensuring that .97¢ of every dollar donated goes directly to feeding the hungry. Through their relationships with food vendors and suppliers they can leverage every $1 donated to deliver 5 meals—the equivalent of $10 worth of food.  This translates to a 900% return on your donation!  I am not sure of any other organization that has been able to consistently provide that kind of ROI.

The Ask: With that, I would like to personally ask you to donate whatever you can during our food drive.  Irrespective of the ROI, feeding a hungry family is a priceless act.

If this proposition is not compelling enough, I would like to make it even more compelling. During this Food Drive, I will personally match your donation up to $2,500 in the following way:

  • For every one-food item you donate, I will personally donate $1.00 to match it.
  • For every $1.00 in cash you donate, I will personally donate $5.00.

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, that increases the ROI on your donation by over 5000%.
Thank you for your participation.

Best regards,

Sean O’Leary
Executive Director
NC IDEA Foundation


Donate to the Food Bank
You may drop off your donation items at Groundwork Labs: 201 W Main Street Durham, NC 27701 Suite 100 Office 103. Alternatively, monetary donations may be made online at Please forward a copy of your donation receipt to Reagan Reynolds at
Approved Items
  • Canned Fruits, Vegetables, Meat, and Soup (Pop-top cans and low sodium a plus!)
  • Whole Grain Pasta, Brown Rice, Dried Beans, and Cereal
  • Peanut Butter
  • For Infants: Formula, Infant Cereal, Diapers, and Wipes
  • For Kids: Fruit Cups, Juice Boxes, Granola Bars, Crackers, Popcorn and Sugar-Free Pudding Cups
  • Non-Food Essentials: Hygiene Items, Household Items, and Paper Products
  • *Please – No loose glass and plastic jars of baby food as they will have to be discarded due to health regulations

What’s new at Groundwork Labs: Introducing the Winter 2016 Cohort

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Our Winter 2016 session has started with some great new companies and a few tweaks to our program.

We have invited several companies to Groundwork who are a bit beyond our usual just-an-idea-trying-to-figure-out-if-we-have-a-business stage.  We’re going to see if we can customize some things that will accelerate their development – we’re calling it G++.  We have our largest group since we started in 2012 and will have now had 100 companies participate in Groundwork.

We have also added two new Groundworkers-in-Residence: Vickie Gibbs and Jeff Lindsey, who join Scott Barstow, Bryan Hassin, and Lauren Whitehurst, and a Developer-in-Residence: Scott Williams, a recent alumni of the Ironyard.

Here are the 10 companies that will be participating:

  • Collis Arrick, David Morris, Brian Cohen, Maurice Robertson, John Senegal  – Copula Systems – analytics, merchandise sourcing, and cloud based e-commerce solutions to the resale industry

  • Jim Bao, Ken Lu, Cliff Xie – Aislenet – an indoor “GPS system” for warehouses to more accurately locate pallets in their buildings (G++)

  • Chris Carmody, Jeff Barghout – NexusEMC – planning tools for cities to site electric vehicle charging stations

  • John Cone – Fitfor90 – a monitoring system for athlete readiness and recovery (G++)

  • Jon Hayes, Josh Adell – RewardStock – a website that enables users to more efficiently use their frequent flyer miles and hotel rewards (G++)

  • Jeff Kaplan – ManDog Travel – a website and app for dog enthusiasts that uses geolocation to recommend nearby activities and pet friendly venues

  • Mutuk Karpakakunjaram – AllElements – HR tools for enabling employee goal alignment and engagement, providing employee feedback, and visualizing employee engagement

  • Justin Rothwell, Elliot Poger – ProAxion – failure prediction for rotating machines and equipment (G++)

  • Ricky Spero, Jay Fisher, Travis Gurney  – Rheomics – technology to isolate targets like stem cells and circulating DNA in biological fluids

  • Jake Vestal – Vestal Industries – products that automate quality control in the ready-mix concrete industry


Things I love being at American Underground @Main and things I will miss from the @ATC Location

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johnAfter about four years in the American Underground @ American Tobacco Campus, Groundwork Labs has moved up the street to a beautiful space in the American Underground @ Main.  (For those of you who haven’t been to @Main – we are two blocks up Blackwell right at the corner of Main and Corcoran).

There are a few things I am going to miss:

  1. Parking my car on a rainy day and walking to my office without wet feet.
  2. Leaving my office at the start of the National Anthem and being in my seat at the DBAP in time for the first pitch.
  3. Peanut butter sandwich, chips, and a homemade chocolate chip cookie in the shade under the water tower on nice spring and fall days
  4. 100 steps to Saladelia, grab a turkey chipotle panini lunch special, and back to my desk in less than 3 minutes for a working lunch
  5. Up two flights of stairs and across the street to an Only Burger combo
  6. 200 feet to Tyler’s and all those beer choices
  7. Our buddies at Idea Fund Partners, Ironyard, Startup Factory, CED, Defy Media, and Wired Triangle

(why do so many of those involve food and drink?)

But there’s much more to love @Main:

  1. Startups galore!  We’ve been in the Underground @ATC since nearly the beginning when it was the epicenter of the Durham startup scene.  The Underground’s success created @Main, and that has now become the center – it will be great to rejoin the startups there.
  2. A Window! Get me some shades!
  3. The coolest, hugest photo of 1920’s Durham along our side wall, pretty much aligned to what you would see if the wall wasn’t there.
  4. The nice rooftop deck
  5. Free coffee (I love free stuff)
  6. Free pizza on Wednesdays (once again we’re back to food)

Highlighting Groundwork After Hours Program: Inside startup company Rewardstock

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We’re happy to announce the first ever Groundwork Labs After Hours session was a success! The program, a shortened and more accelerated version of the full-time session, was started to accommodate entrepreneurs who are still at their idea stages and are unable to attend the full-time session due to a day job or other reasons.

Our After Hours session and the full-time Groundwork program is free, no costs to attend the program and no equity is taken from the companies selected to participate.

One of our teams that completed the After Hours session was RewardStock, a credit card point optimizing service, helps users take full advantage of their credit card point systems to get as many rewards as possible. After completing the session founder Jon Hayes and his company RewardStock just recently raised $350,000 in seed funding. Here is Hayes telling us a little bit about his company and experience with Groundwork Labs.

reward stock groundwork labs durham nc startup programs entrepreneurs tech startups rewards credit card rewards

GWL: Jon, tell us a little bit about your background before founding RewardStock?

I worked on Wall Street. I was an investment banker in NY at Citigroup, doing Mergers & Acquisitions. Before that I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Economics.

GWL: What inspired you to start your company?

When my wife and I took our honeymoon, we used points and miles to pay for it. The planning process for figuring out which rewards we needed to get to our dream destination and how to quickly get those rewards was difficult. Ultimately we spent about two weeks devising a plan, and I realized at that point that the right software could do in seconds what took us weeks. So I decided to build that software.

GWL: What are your ambitions for your company? Where do you see yourself and your company in 5 years?

To build a company that delivers a product that users love and employees love to make.

In five years we will be helping people apply expert strategies with minimal effort to plan honeymoons, anniversary trips, summer vacations and random getaways for very little cash. By that time we’d like to be working with users that we’ve had for several years.

GWL: What keeps you up at night?

I often work during the late night / early morning hours. A relic of my days in investment banking.

GWL: What has had the biggest impact on RewardStock? Whether that be from Groundwork Labs or somewhere else.

Having a great partner.

GWL: Describe your first sale or if you haven’t had a sale yet, describe how you would like it to look. 

My wife got her latest credit card through the RewardStock system. It was our first revenue conversion and was followed quickly by a series of other beta users.

GWL: If you could ask for one thing at this moment what would it be?

Some good movies to watch on my flight to Paris. When travel is not about cost, it’s amazing how much more you focus on enjoying the experience.

GWL: If you were to ride one animal into battle, assuming that all animals were roughly the same size, what would it be?

A tiger. Because Princeton, and because tigers are awesome.

Essay Assay: Democratizing Education

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Jamey Heit has had an exciting three months working on his company, Essay Assay, in our Groundwork Labs program. During this past session, Essay Assay won an NC IDEA grant, gained more customer traction, and received public spotlight in a WNCN news feature. His product, a software that automatically grades written papers for structure, not content, is revolutionizing the way students approach writing and how teachers approach grading school work. Don’t believe it’s possible? Be sure to attend the CED Tech Venture Conference to hear Jamey’s pitch yourself!

GWL: Jamey, tell us something about your background before founding Essay Assay?

JH: Before founding Essay Assay, I was a Humanities professor. My specialty was Religion and Literature with a side-interest in popular culture studies.

GWL: What inspired you to start your company?

JH: My inspiration to start Essay Assay was really a matter of frustration with the significant time that grading took. I asked myself at one point, “How many essays have I graded in my life?” I quit counting when I was safely north of 20,000! I then tried to figure out how much time that equaled and I think the answer is at least six months. At that point I convinced myself that this a) could be automated and b) had to be automated.

GWL: What are your ambitions for you company? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

JH: Our ambition is to democratize education. Our software is a virtual writing instructor that can do two significant things in pursuit of this goal. The first is to help students who want to improve their writing access a resource that can give them the consistent feedback they need to improve. The second is to provide a learning resource that similarly helps teachers. Time is not something teachers have a lot of, so we see our software was a virtual writing tutor that can take some of the time crunch of grading off of teachers’ plates. If students do some of the initial work on their writing using Essay Assay’s software, then teachers can spend their time and leverage their expertise engaging students in ways that the computer cannot replicate.

GWL: What keeps you up at night?

JH: The idea that my daughters, or anyone who wants to be a good writer, wouldn’t have the engagement needed to acquire the skill. Writing is labor intensive and requires consistent engagement. Because time is short and classrooms are full, too often students fall behind.

GWL: Tell us about your Groundwork Labs experience. What has had the biggest impact on Essay Assay?

JH: Groundworks was a fantastic experience for Essay Assay. It forced us to clarify a lot of assumptions we had about product development, customer acquisition, and our business model. The mentorship we received was invaluable. I would recommend Groundworks to anyone who is starting a company.

GWL: If you could ask for one thing at this moment what would it be?

JH: 26 hours a day. Building a company takes a lot of time!


ExitEvent Feature: The Triangle Needs More Great Startup Mentors

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Joe Procopio, CPO of Automated Insights, shares his mentoring experience with Groundwork Labs team Essay Assay and discusses why mentorship is an important component of a healthy startup community.

“A couple weeks ago, I called out the need within the Triangle startup scene for more of our entrepreneurs to step up and lead. I’m not saying we’re not doing it, but it’s a big job and we can’t wait for founders with gargantuan exits to turn the Triangle into the next big startup hub. We’ve got to work with what we’ve got. And furthermore, what we’ve got is more than enough.

One of the ways this theory applies is in mentoring and advising.

I recently took on a formal mentorship role after a long absence in any sort of mentoring or advising. I’ve been working with the brilliant Jamey Heit from EssayAssay, who is starting to get well-deserved buzz for an amazing technology that uses algorithms to grade papers.

Yes. Algorithms. Writing. Robot Teachers. Right in my wheelhouse.”

Read the full story on ExitEvent.

Groundwork Labs After Hours program featured on WNCN

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The applications have been flooding in for Groundwork Labs After Hours — our new part-time startup program! Thank you WNCN for the excellent promotion! Read the full article here.

Click here to learn more about the details of the program and the application process.

Bright Wolf is Awarded “Groundworker of the Year”

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Bright Wolf Groundworker of the Year Groundwork Labs NC IDEA startup programs Durham NC

Yesterday, we wrapped up our Spring 2015 Groundwork session. For the first time in a very long time, we had a closing ceremony. Many of our mentors and alumni stopped by and we had a chance to “toast and roast” the six companies from our Spring session. It seemed like a great time to celebrate our alumni as well—and we decided to create an annual award… the “Groundworker-of-the-Year” Award.

We impress NC IDEA’s (and Groundwork’s) mission upon all of our companies: growing the North Carolina economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem by creating winning startups. Groundwork Labs is offered for free—no equity, no fees. However, there are two strings attached:

1. We ask our entrepreneurs to go mentor or help another startup that might not have the opportunity to be part of Groundwork labs.
2. We ask that when they have an exit and are fabulously successful that they make an angel investment in a North Carolina startup.

It’s really challenging while you are growing a startup to take the time to give back to the community, and the award that we created is to recognize a company that has best exemplified this core value through their involvement in the community.

We are pleased to award the first Groundworker-of-the-Year Award to James Branigan and Patrick Dempsey of Bright Wolf, who were in the Groundwork Labs program in Fall of 2013. This team has been extremely active in RIoT – the local Internet of Things meetup group, and James has been part of our Groundwork mentor program, working with Wellzesta, a team from our most recent cohort.

Thanks James and Patrick for all you do for the startup community.

And congratulations to our Spring 2015 teams for completing the Groundwork Labs program!

Groundwork Labs Spring 2015 startup programs NC durham, nc

From Bad to Beautiful: The UI/UX journey of Brim.

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Product design is a cycle. You research, you prototype, you test, you build, you repeat. Just like every human, every product is somewhere in the middle of a journey that never ends. In the course of the three months that I have been Developer-in-Residence at Groundwork Labs, I have seen Brim evolve from a product that was borderline-unusable to one of the few, locally-grown SaaS products I recommend to friends and colleagues. The journey is long, and building a successful SaaS is incredibly difficult. But Brim has arrived at an important destination along the highway and has the momentum and correct user driven design mentality to turn this into a major player in the software communication/collaboration space.

The Journey

As a user-experience professional, I might be a touch biased. But if a SaaS product isn’t easier to use, more intuitive, and friendlier than your competition then it’s dead in the water. Well, maybe not dead, but it’s been bitten by a shark and needs to be saved.

When I first heard CEO Mark McNasby pitch his company, Brim, it sounded like Slack, Google Drive/Dropbox, Evernote, and Skype had a baby—the ultimate communication, collaboration, and productivity suite. The potential complexity of the interface completely freaked me out. Interfaces need to be built on simplicity and Mark had already alluded in his pitch that there were some usability issues with the Brim platform. When I finally saw the product in that state my head exploded. Not in a good way.

The usability learning curve was way too high for most users. Thus, a return to switching between the tabs and windows of Gmail, Gchat, Slack, Skype, Dropbox, etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum, was imminent.

That said, I for one hate how many apps I use as part of my daily workflow and I wanted to see what was at the heart of this beast. So, I climbed the mountain and found a few pretty shiny silver linings:

» All of the features work.

I could chat. Make video calls. Share docs. I could even create a spreadsheet in-app that just a co-worker and I could use. In fact, a person-to-person joint drive was automatically created that saved all documents that another user and I had shared via the app. And it was easy to add new members to that drive or a subset of that drive. I could take a screenshot, mark it up, and share it, all without leaving the UI. I could do all this while on a video call with a colleague. It was a super intriguing feature set.

» It’s competitive to Slack.

I love Slack. It’s 21st century chat/document sharing and it’s stupid simple. I use it for communications within four different organizations that I work with. That said, there is one huge drawback for me: Scope. With Slack, I am locked into only talking within each company or organization’s Slack channels. I do a lot of work across companies, which means I either have to create a new slack organization for each project or people have to be invited in as part of an organization they aren’t a member of. With Brim, I can connect with anyone across the platform regardless of the different teams they are a part of. If I want to do a side project or am working with clients, I just add them and we talk. It’s not rocket science, in fact it’s how most chat clients work. But Slack took a different route and, for me, it hurts cross-organization collaboration. Brim, on the other hand, encourages collaboration across organizations which is hugely beneficial to both innovation, creativity, and the ability to use it as a sales tool.

» They recognize “the Problem.”

Mark is an experienced CEO. He is already the founder of one successful startup. Brim will be his second. With Brim Mark took a customer first approach to product building. He went out and talked  to potential users, asked them what features they needed in a communication and collaboration suite and worked with his development team to get those features built. The features were there and working. I am still astounded by the amount of things I can do inside of the app. But after showing everyone what they had built they knew there was a serious usability issue. When he asked me for my honest opinion, I didn’t hesitate.

I told him that, while the feature set was awesome, the UI was a complete disaster. I would start by picking the three most important features of Brim, hide the rest of it, and put a ton of thought and research into grouping features logically. Then test how users behave, where they get stuck, and ultimately how they are using or not using the platform. Let them dictate the design. As an aside, I told him everything needed to be larger with more space around it.

Brim: The Next Iteration

A couple of weeks later I viewed a new Brim interface. It looks nothing like the old interface. On the surface it feels familiar to Slack, a panel for contacts/connections on the left and then a large interaction window in the middle where a majority of the action happens. Gone are all of the confusing panels hoisted around the outside of the interface housing vagrant features. They have been replaced by a simple two-tiered navigation at the top of the screen that house global functionality. The rest of the features, those that have to do with creating items within a conversation, are housed at the bottom on the interaction window inside of a large and very obvious plus button. The features are still there, but it is 1000% cleaner and for the most part exactly where I want it to be . My head exploded, but this time it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was all very simple—just how we UI/UX people like it.  Mark has just done what I thought was impossible.



“The cornerstone of wellness is socialization” – Kyle Robinson on building Wellzesta

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“If you are helping others to become better people or achieve their goals, then what you are aspiring to do in life will happen.”


The above quote is the best piece of advice Kyle Robinson, founder and president of Wellzesta, ever received and nothing encapsulates Wellzesta better than this mission of helping others. Wellzesta is a technology platform that aims to inspire and empower seniors to achieve improved health and well-being through a first-of-its-kind comprehensive wellness program, which is implemented at senior living communities.

Kyle was inspired by her 17 years in the senior living industry, where she saw how people’s lives were positively changed by making the move to a retirement community.

“The cornerstone of wellness is socialization. Isolation often becomes a problem as we age,” said Robinson. “We wanted to create something that not only would inspire seniors to make the decision to move to a community, but also change the negative perception these senior living communities often receive.”

One aspect of Wellzesta is to help people discover new passions and hobbies, as well as connect with others to help them become healthier, both physically and emotionally.

The grand vision of Wellzesta is to pave the way for preventative health and wellness within retirement communities. Instead of merely looking at electronic medical records, Wellzesta will provide users and doctors with electronic wellness records (EWRs). Treating people as people, not merely patients, will lead to healthier and happier seniors.

Wellzesta is just less than one-year old and Kyle says that the hardest parts about working on such an early stage start up are the to-do lists.

“There are so many facets to think about during the first year of an entrepreneurial venture, that the process from thought to finish is daunting. The to-do lists keep me up at night,” said Robinson. “I keep my phone next to my bed and sometimes I wake up at night just to add another thing to my to-do list.”

Right now, Wellzesta is conducting pre-sales with senior living communities across the U.S. Kyle says this phase is the most exciting because she gets to talk about her vision and how she can help the community.

She loves being in Groundwork Labs because the atmosphere is filled with creative entrepreneurs who are always willing to challenge your thoughts, brainstorm ideas, and even develop business strategies. “It’s an atmosphere of collaboration and creativity on a daily basis,” said Robinson.

I asked Kyle if she could have anything at this moment what would it be. She quickly replied with a smile “100 new customers.” Then, immediately added the caveat “paying customers.” The following day, Kyle came in and told me she wrote a note on her phone for me. She looked through her phone and began to laugh. The note was that if she could have anything at this moment, it would be happy and satisfied customers.

The above anecdote really exemplifies Kyle’s caring nature, which is the driving force behind Wellzesta and the following quote shows Kyle’s deep understanding regarding her customers.

“I think baby boomers do not really want to retire. I think we need to retire the word retire and call it a second-generation career,” said Robinson.

Announcing Groundwork Labs After Hours Program

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We are excited to announce Groundwork Labs After Hours, a new flexible program to begin August 18, 2015!

Groundwork Labs After Hours will offer many benefits of the full-time Groundwork Labs program including mentorship on customer discovery, building an MVP, and fundraising. By the end of the session, an entrepreneur should be able to make a decision to leap full time into their startup and therefore be positioned to apply to an accelerator, apply for an NC IDEA grant, or bootstrap. Or, though it may be disappointing – have the data to decide to fail fast and move on to something else without regrets.

“We often receive promising applications for Groundwork Labs from entrepreneurs who are not in a position to commit to the full-time program”, said John Austin, Director of Groundwork Labs. “Groundwork Labs After Hours provides those entrepreneurs with an opportunity to discover if they can turn their idea into a business.”

The ideal candidate will have a technology-based product idea that has the potential to become a scalable business.

Apply Now! Application Deadline is July 26, 2015.

Join us for an informational session on July 14. RSVP here.



Jeff Williams has a Big Vision: Your Home Built by a Robot

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Jeff Williams has an impressive resume. After 10 years as a NASA engineer, he set off to work as Vice President for Parata Systems, LLC. He then took a position as CTO for Physcient, Inc. Now Jeff has started out to create his own business, Williams Robotics. He has a big vision—homes built by robots. With more than eight years of thought put behind his project, Jeff is in Groundwork Labs to turn his vision into a successful, scalable business.


Jeff Williams Williams Robotics robots construction Groundwork Labs durham nc startups entrepreneurs Internet of Things Home Construction Awesome Ideas Revolutionary Thinking NASA Engineers North Carolina RTP entrepreneursGWL:  Just for kicks to get things started, tell me: if you could have any super power in the world what would it be?

JW: To soar like a hawk.

GWL: Awesome. Will you tell us something about your background before you founded Williams Robotics?

JW: I’ve spent most of my career in the lab doing basic and applied research as well as many new product developments – mostly in pharmacy automation.   While I’ve managed groups of engineers, I’ve never been a manager of managers.   I’ve always been paws on – probably too much so,  but that’s what I enjoy the most.  Most people consider me a tinkerer and often hard to deal with.   I’m definitely not much for rules or process, so large organizations aren’t for me.

GWL: What inspired you to start Williams Robotics?

JW: I had the opportunity to do something new, and definitely wanted it to be in robotics.  Home building seemed like a tough problem that has defied meaningful automation.   If the technical challenges could be overcome, Williams Robotics would have a big impact  on a fundamental human need.

GWL: What are your ambitions for your company? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

JW: For Williams Robotics—To be the complete Home Building Robot provider, driving towards 100% market penetration.  In 5 years I hope I’m off the “circuit” and back in the lab working on robots for plumbing and electrical.

GWL: What keeps you up at night?

JW: Thinking about all the things that need to be done.

GWL: Tell us about your Groundwork Labs experience. What has had the biggest impact on you or your company so far?

JW: Groundwork Labs has been a great resource to move me out of my comfort zone and into where I must be at this point in my company’s life.   The outside resources made available to us give the program great depth.   The greatest impact to date has been the progress on refining the investor pitch.

GWL: If you could ask for one thing at this moment for Williams Robotics what would it be?

JW: Co-founder(s).

Williams Robotics groundwork labs startup durham nc north carolina burlington construction robot stick-built disruptive structural building component

Learning What it Means to Be an Entrepreneur: Alex Piasecki, intern with Groundwork Labs

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During Alex Piasecki’s internship with Groundwork Labs, he was able to go behind the scenes with a couple of startup companies in the Groundwork program in order to learn more about what it means to be an entrepreneur. Alex also had the opportunity to gain some new experiences with web and content design. Below, Alex reflects on his time at Groundwork Labs and the innovative culture of startups. 


Alex Piasecki groundwork labs startup programs durham nc entrepreneurs UNC graduates internships entrepreneurship When I applied to Groundwork Labs, I was a second semester senior from UNC, looking for additional experience in entrepreneurship and venture capital. I had taken a couple visits to the American Underground and had been fascinated by the collaborative and innovative environment fostered here in Durham. I walked the halls, seeing people working hard, yet laughing, and collaborating on some of the most creative and innovative project, developing solutions for some of society’s most basic and complex problems. Yet when I applied to be an intern at Groundwork Labs, I still really didn’t know what to expect.

Upon meeting John Austin, the director of Groundwork Labs, I knew that this internship would be different than any investment banking or consulting job that I was familiar with. My very first day, I met with the founders of six different leading companies, ranging from urban forest marketplaces (Urban Offsets), to unique services disrupting the fishery industry (TruFish). My job was to support these companies in any capacity I could. At times, I would do research for lead generation, while other times I would talk with a founder through his strategy for a new expansion plan. The exposure to these entrepreneurs allowed me to learn more about what kind of business leader I want to become, and helped me understand what qualities make a new business successful.

Beyond the exposure to the budding entrepreneurial environment in the American Underground, I also was challenged to develop new skills and lead projects as part of my internship. One of my largest projects was the development of a new website for Groundwork Labs. My previous experience with HTML and web development was extremely limited, yet John trusted me to not only pick the theme, but also develop the infrastructure behind the new website. At times, I struggled to make any progress, running into roadblocks and being unable to create the web page features I wanted due to my inexperience. But John continued to trust me, and I was able to persevere and troubleshoot, learning more about editing HTML code than I ever thought possible. In the end, I think we were able to come-up with a final product that everyone at GWL was happy about. I took what I learned from building the GWL website, and actually applied it to my next task, as I set up a web landing page for Urban Offsets, one of the many NC IDEA grant finalists in residence at GWL.

Overall, my experience as an intern at GWL was fantastic. I got exposure to various entrepreneurs and got to work in one of the most up-and-coming areas for innovation in the USA in the American Underground here in Durham. At the same time, I developed coding and web development skills that I will be able to keep with me and apply to future endeavors—hopefully a company of my own!



“I can’t believe how much I was able to accomplish”: Tom Vosburgh reflects on his internship with Groundwork Labs

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Tom Vosburgh completed an internship with Groundwork Labs during his 2015 spring semester. His time was spent among the teams in residence and completing projects that include: writing, data analysis and marketing. Before leaving Groundwork Labs for a summer full of travel and adventure, Tom reflects on his time here and advice he would give to future interns.


tom vosburgh interns groundwork labs durham nc internships duke students startups entrepreneurs opportunities american tobacco campus american undergroundI first became aware of Groundwork Labs during the fall of my junior year of college. I have been involved with my school’s startup community since my freshman year – I’ve taken part in the Duke Start Up Challenge and completed an internship at a social venture accelerator in Cape Town – but I wanted to venture into a more tech-oriented entrepreneurial space. The internship position the Director of Groundwork Labs, John Austin, described to me appealed so much because it would allow me to see for myself the problems entrepreneurs face everyday and the strategies used to solve them, and so I began my work here at Groundwork in the January of 2015.

While here, I have worn a variety of hats in order to ensure everyone, from John and Reagan (the Community Manager) to the business’ founders, has the help they need. I scoured U.S. Census Bureau statistics and AngelList profiles in order to analyze the richness of Durham’s entrepreneurial scene and compare it to other metropolitan areas. I compiled data from participant satisfaction surveys so John could see which components of the Groundwork curriculum were most effective and which required modifications to better serve its members. I worked with one startup to search for demographic traits that could indicate where or not an individual is a likely customer. Finally, I even conducted due diligence on applicants for the next round of Groundwork Labs and played a role in the selection and interview processes. Though my time here only lasted a semester with interruptions thanks to snowstorms and exam-induced “crunch times”, I can’t believe how much I was able to accomplish during it.

Looking backwards with the clarity only hindsight can provide, my only regret is not using this opportunity to more actively build my own network of mentors. Everyone here is incredibly well connected to the Triangle startup scene, and they’re more than willing to let you pick their brains on anything that comes to mind. My advice to anyone interested in an internship here is to take it; this could be the only time you have when you can immerse yourself in a startup environment without your paycheck depending on it.

Guru Feature: Jon Schwartz

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Jon Schwartz volunteers his time as a guru in Groundwork Labs assisting companies with user experience. Recently, Jon joined a Groundwork Labs alumni team in a permanent position. This opportunity, as detailed by Jon below, is one of the reasons our program works to grow and connect the local startup community.
JonSchwartz iScribes Groundwork Labs gurus startups north carolina startups durham nc tech businessesWhen I moved back to Carolina (by choice!) in 2012 I was remotely managing an engineering team for a large San Francisco-based software company. It was interesting work, and interesting technology, and nice people, but I only saw my team in person when I hopped on a plane. And anyway, I prefer the variety and agility and autonomy of startup work. In fact, I ended up at a large company when they bought my last startup.

So I knew that eventually I wanted to be part of a local startup, and I began attending the monthly Exit Event socials. I met John Austin at one, and when I mentioned my User Experience expertise, he immediately asked me about being a guru desk mentor at Groundwork Labs. I was happy to sign up!
For the year and a half since, I’ve spent a few hours a month helping GWL startups improve their users’ experiences, and have enjoyed it greatly. Everyone at GWL is smart, passionate, and trying their best to build something new and good and successful. This makes the sessions a fundamentally fun thing to do, but also makes it rewarding and satisfying to help them.

Early this year, when I began looking to work locally, John Austin was the first person I thought of reaching out to. John helped me trim by resume, and make it very specifically about the kind of startup user experience role I was looking for. Once my resume was good, he mailed it to his network, and I immediately got a dozen emails in response.
A few of the companies that inquired about my resume were ones I had helped in my guru role at Groundwork Labs, and I am very happy to say that I was able to connect with one of those companies in order to gain my current position as Head of User Experience for iScribes. It’s a great team of people, a really interesting opportunity, and exactly the startup role that I wanted to have.
iScribes was founded by Jared Pelo, an MD passionate about using technology to help doctors provide better care to their patients – which is a vision and goal I am personally happy to get behind. And, of course, iScribes is happy for me to continue helping younger startups at Groundwork Labs.
I tell the story because it’s a great example of how our local startup community works. This was a win for everyone. And if some of you reach out, connect with the community, and offer help as you can, I’m sure it’ll be a fun, interesting and satisfying way to volunteer a little of your time and expertise. And, I’d bet it’ll come back to you with interest.

Featured Guru: Lauren Whitehurst

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One of Groundwork Labs’ most valuable assets is our extensive and supportive network of expert volunteers. The GWL teams have ready access to a group of knowledgable, connected “gurus” who volunteer their time in order to see each startup grow and succeed. Having worked in this space myself (with a startup team), and now managing our community directly, I understand first-hand how invaluable this contribution is to our program.

lauren whitehurst groundwork labs durham nc startup program accelerators american underground american tobacco campus tech startups marketing business harvard grads mba Lauren Whitehurst is one of these volunteers. She generously contributes a couple hours of her time every week to offer her expertise on a wide variety of subjects. Lauren holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, and her career spans 20+ years with firms such as Boston Consulting Group, Goldman Sachs, Turner Entertainment and Duke University. She built Fuqua’s Center for Consulting Excellence and now teaches strategy periodically in the undergraduate program.

In addition to being very accomplished, she is wonderfully accessible and passionate about equipping promising startups in the area. I recently reached out to Lauren for more on why she chooses to volunteer her time with Groundwork Labs.

GL: Tell us a bit about your work beyond the doors of Groundwork Labs.

LW: Outside of GWL, I have about four “jobs” — none of which earn me a paycheck. First, I work with other companies in the American Underground and I am an active member of this community —I have a co-working space at Main Street; I read grant applications for NC Idea; I help to run Soar, our Google-sponsored organization focused on closing the funding gap for female entrepreneurs, etc. Second, I am Vice-Chair of the Student U Board and I play an active role in that non-profit. We’ve just kicked off a strategic visioning process, and I am the key Board liaison to that effort. Third, I currently play a similar role at my kids’ school, Durham Academy, where we are finishing a strategic planning process that I chaired as a Board Member.

Finally, but truly foremost, I am mom to 13-year-old twins, and since my husband travels quite a bit for work, I am everything from CEO of the house to bus driver!

GL: What inspires you to volunteer your time to work with startups?

LW: I spent most of my professional career up to our move to the Triangle in strategy consulting with BCG. Working with start ups allows me to keep using that experience but in a new way — It’s the best of consulting without the travel. I also love being part of the Underground community — this is a huge reward, as it took me quite a while to find my “place” in the Durham community after we moved about 7 years ago. I like being part of what’s happening here and knowing that my contributions are making a difference. In full disclosure: I’ve also loved that this volunteer opportunity has once and a while enabled me to trade my time/advice for tiny stakes —advisory equity. It’s only happened where relationships have gone pretty deep but it’s exciting to have a bit of skin in the game.

GL: How do you think the companies in our program may best utilize your expertise?

LW: I often answer that question quickly by calling myself “John 2” — I’m going to listen, ask questions and probe into your business model and your assumptions. I will make you set priorities, consider your customer segmentation and refine your pitch message. Because I’ve been exposed to so many large companies via BCG and now via my work with startups in the past 2 years of being down at The Underground, I have a sense of how to play up strengths, prod at potential weaknesses and test assumptions about the market and the business.

GL: Describe a moment when you felt proud of the work you accomplished.

LW: I have been really proud to be a pivotal member of the Soar team, along with John. Being asked to help create and manage this organization was a real vote of confidence in me and a demonstration that the community sees me as someone able to add value to what we are creating here.

GL: What is one piece of advice or encouragement you can offer to new startups entering our program?

LW: Take advantage of the enormous resources available via GWL — the gurus, the pitch practice, the connections to NC Idea, and especially John and each other. The biggest mistake I see people make in GWL is not spending enough time there to take full advantage.

GL: If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

LW: To make time move more slowly so that when I have too much to do, or too much I want to do, I could have more time. (I might slow down my own aging process and that of my kids too :) )

We’re Hiring a Developer-in-Residence

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 We are excited to announce a new role that will begin with our spring session – Developer-in-Residence.  This new addition to Groundwork Labs will provide a great capability for teams with great ideas that need technical expertise. We need your help in identifying the right person.

The DiR will be an awesome programmer, developer or user-experience designer and will be a full-time technical resource helping to develop MVPs for all of the teams active in the Groundwork Labs session. At the end of the session, we anticipate that one of the teams will find a great fit with the DiR and the DiR may join a team as a co-founder.

Are you interested?

This is an excellent opportunity for a developer who wants to be in a startup, but doesn’t have an idea to start a company.  It’s a fun way to “date” several startups, identify a good fit, and pick up some skills and knowledge on the business side of startups.  The ideal DiR is someone passionate about helping folks bring their ideas to life. This person should be a prodigious coder with expertise in web app development technologies

The position pays $2,000 per month for 3 months.  We know that the likely candidate is worth a lot more on the open market – but we think the experience and opportunity will be far more valuable.

Please pass this along to anyone you know who might be a good fit, and have them send us their resume to

(We didn’t invent this idea. It’s patterned after Techstars’ Hackstar program.  So thanks, Techstars!)

Application Deadline is March 20, 2015

Groundwork Alumni Feature: Mission 100%

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In April 2014, Janice Smith entered Groundwork Labs with a vision for improving the K-12 classroom experience through visual methods for encouraging shared experience between teachers. She called this vision Mission 100%. Mission 100% is an online platform that promotes best teaching practices and encourages collaboration and implementation through an easy-to-access video database.

Since embarking from the Groundwork Labs program, Mission 100% has continued to hit milestones and has seen significant growth. I reached out to Janice in order to glean some insight into how Mission 100% came to be, where it is now, and where it’s heading.

mission 100 % Janice Smith Groundwork Labs startup incubators raleigh durham nc businesses female entrepreneurs startup american underground nc idea education K-12 teachers tools for teachers

GL: Tell us a little bit about your background prior to founding Mission 100%.

JS: I started teaching right out of college through Teach For America (2006 Eastern North Carolina), and like many corps members quickly became hooked and am still working in education.  I’ve taught both middle school and high school, and later got my Masters in Curriculum Development and Instructional Supervision.  This led to a job as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Maureen Joy Charter School where I got to coach Kindergarten through 8th grade teachers, and help our team transition to the Common Core State Standards.

GL: How did you come up with the idea for Mission 100%?

JS: It was in my role at Maureen Joy that I began to see firsthand the power of video exemplars in helping to support our teachers grow both efficiently and effectively.  After watching another teacher, either in person or on video, it became easier to translate and replicate what they were doing into their own classrooms.  But logistically it’s nearly impossible to watch teachers in their classrooms, and it limits us to only those within our buildings.  Video allows us to capture incredible teachers across the country, and then bring their practice into our own building at a much lower cost.

GL: What has been your greatest milestone so far in building your business?

JS: Our greatest milestone (so far!) was being accepted into ImagineK12, an incredible edtech accelerator located in Silicon Valley.  Not only was it an incredible experience learning more about growing a successful business, but it also gave us a chance to visit over 20 schools, and bring home over 100 hours of incredible classroom footage to help grow our library.

GL: What is your ambition for your company? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

JS: To me, what’s most interesting about integrating video exemplars, and video in general, into your practice and professional development is the way it naturally leads to a practice-focused model.  You are able to watch, reflect, analyze first, then spend your time with your coach or team actually practicing new strategies to make you more apt to actually translate and implement into your classroom.  While short term we’re aiming to build a comprehensive video library of exemplars, long term we’re hoping to better support schools in transitioning their professional development to a more practice-based model.  In 5 years I imagine providing a comprehensive tool and support structure to help schools implement, and provide them with all the resources they need to implement effectively.

GL: What keeps you up at night?Janice Smith quote

JS: The hardest part of building a tool like the Mission 100% video library is that first and foremost you have to have a shared vision of what great teaching looks like.  While there are certainly pockets of schools and models that are getting much closer to agreeing on what this looks like, we as a country are still far from where we need to be.  And while this certainly impacts our ability to grow as fast as some startups, we ultimately believe this is a cause worth fighting for.  The closer we can get to identifying, naming and teaching instructional practices that research has proven to lead to student results, the closer we get to training teachers nationwide to provide an excellent education for every student.  We believe that video can be a powerful tool in pushing us towards a shared vision.

GL: Tell us about your Groundwork Labs experience. What has had the biggest impact on Mission 100%?

JS: Just like I was talking about with teaching, there are certainly shared best practices in building and growing a successful company.  As someone who spent all her time learning how to get better at teaching, and coaching teachers, when I started Mission 100% I had a LOT to learn about the business side.  Groundwork Labs was such an incredible place for me to start, as I was provided not only with structured support (speakers, field trips to local businesses, business model canvas work sessions), but also a network of people who were always eager to help.  The other founders in my cohort, along with John, were always there to answer my questions (no matter how silly), offer words of encouragement and share their own experiences.  The gurus that John arranged to come in also provided specific support on areas such as sales/marketing, legal issues, and UX/UI.  Near the end I learned of ImagineK12 (which I mentioned earlier) and all the folks at Groundwork Labs were there to help me constantly refine my application and then do mock interviews once I was invited out to San Francisco for an in-person interview.  I am confident I would never have been accepted there if it weren’t for everything I learned through Groundwork Labs, and their support throughout the application process.

We’re Looking for a Marketing, Community, and Office Coordinator

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We need help! We’re ready for a talented go-getter to help us better serve our clients – the entrepreneurs and startups who are blazing trails and making a difference in our community.

By “We”, I mean collectively NC IDEA + Groundwork Labs + IDEA Fund Partners.  We work closely together and are co-located at the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham, amongst many of the entrepreneurs and startups we support.

You’ll be working on projects that range from really interesting to really routine – things like building awareness of our programs through social media, monthly newsletters, and blog posts and helping make sure those programs run smoothly by helping with applications, scheduling, and organization.

  • Do you enjoy variety in your work?
  • Can you expertly manage multiple projects in a fast-paced environment?
  • Are you social media, marketing and tech savvy (graphic design is a bonus skill)?
  • Do you have experience with content creation (e.g., newsletters, blogging, press releases) and tools like salesforce, Mailchimp, and WordPress?
  • Are you often complimented on your relationship-building skills?
  • Can you read peoples’ minds and know what they need before they need it?

If you answered these questions with a resounding “Yes!”, this may be a great opportunity for you. We offer a full time position with somewhat flexible hours (including occasional evening work) for the person who wants to be a part of helping people and companies succeed.

If interested in applying, email a cover letter and your resume to so that we can learn more about you.  

Groundwork Spring Session, Application Deadline, and Info Meetups

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Our spring session will begin on April 13, with an application deadline of March 5.

We will be holding informal information meetups about the program around the Triangle the week of February 2:

  • Raleigh   Monday, February 2, noon at HQ Raleigh (310 South Harrington Street) Sign Up
  • RTP   Tuesday, February 3, 4:30 PM at The Frontier – Canyon Conference Room (800 Park Offices Drive) Sign Up
  • Durham   Thursday, February 5, 4:30 PM at Groundwork Labs – American Tobacco Campus (334 Blackwell St.) Sign Up

If a company is applying for an NC IDEA grant, you can simply check a box on that application and you will be considered for Groundwork Labs.  Alternatively, companies can use the application form on our website.

Since launching in February 2012, more than 80 companies have been through our program.  Eight of those companies have won NC IDEA grants and ten have been accepted into accelerators including Tech Stars and The Startup Factory.   15 of our companies have in total raised more than $2.5 million in equity funding and been awarded $1.4 million in grants.



Happy New Year

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Groundwork is now three years old and with the new year it’s a great time to acknowledge the major achievements of our companies during the last year.

Our mission is the same as NC IDEA, the not-for-profit who funds us:  helping technology startups in North Carolina.  Unlike an accelerator, we don’t make an investment or take an equity stake in the companies we help.   So we measure our success by the revenue and number of jobs created by the entrepreneurs (not the companies) who have been in Groundwork.  It’s too soon for either of those metrics to be meaningful, and so in the short term we are measuring the steps along the way: seed investments, grants, and acceptance into accelerators.

We have now helped nearly 80 companies during our three years.  We don’t expect every company that comes through Groundwork to succeed – about half have ceased operations or are on their last legs.  But we’re not going to dwell on that – we’re going to celebrate the ones that are making some great progress.

Three companies won NC IDEA grants in 2014.  AnyCloud (Brian Jenkins), Cellbreaker (Jon Colgan), and Upswing (Melvin Hines, Morgan Intrator, and Alex Pritchett).

Five companies were accepted into accelerators in 2014 (bringing our total to ten):  HostelRocket (Michelle McBryde) and SnapYeti (Justin Beard) were selected for the spring and fall 2014 Startup Factory classes, UpSwing (Melvin Hines and Alex Pritchett) was chosen for Tech Wildcatters in Dallas, Mission 100% (Janice Smith) was selected for the ImagineK12 edtech accelerator in Redwood City, and HealthyBytes (Amy Roberts and Diane Massey) was selected for _________  (we can’t mention the name until they make the official announcement later this month!).

Two companies, FokusLabs (Rich Brancaccio) and Fusion3 Design (David Padgett and Chris Padgett) won $25,000 NC Innovation grants.

During 2014, Groundfloor (Brian Dally and Nick Bhargava) passed the $1 million mark in fundraising and made some great progress with early customers, Eyescribes (Jared Pelo) raised a seed round, Fotoswipe (Sylvain Dufour) raised a seed round and acquired a ton of customers with their app, and Klever raised a round and made great customer progress.

All told, following their time at Groundwork about 20 of those 80 companies have raised more than $3 million in equity and more than $1.4 million in non-dilutive grants.  Nice milestones along the way, but these are not our ultimate.

This year, we also established a partnership with UP Global’s Startup NEXT program which has enabled us to take advantage of connections, mentors, and

Groundwork is always on the lookout for startups at all stages who are looking for a collaborative community in which they can test their idea and reach their next goal.  Give us a shout if you think you are interested.

Welcome New Groundworkers!

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October 2014 classToday we welcomed nine new teams to Groundwork – our largest group to date.  It could be that I’m just indecisive and was unable to decide on the usual five, but I prefer to think of it as not being able to choose amongst some great startups with a wide range of application areas.



  • Aircraft Intelligence – Duncan Jones, Scott Ferner – Aircraft Intelligence is a first of its kind aircraft search tool. We aggregated aircraft listings, market values, upgrade options and damage history which have never before been consolidated.
  • AtomKnows – Sherwood Yao – A mobile software toolkit for photo retailers and travel industry (e.g. Cruise line) to create their branded cloud-based photo book creation & printing apps with minimal code.
  • Aura Life – Eleanor Ismail, Srinivas Rao Chadaram (Naga) – We provide natural, effective and convenient products that remedy yeast infections and help improve the lives of women.
  • Digital Phenomenon – Michael North – Digital Phenomena makes construction automation solutions consisting of cloud-based software and autonomous robots equipped with geospatial interpretation capabilities.
  • Fanpack – David Horne – We’re a subscription site that sends fans unique gifts from their favorite athletes, artists and other influencers while supporting charitable causes.
  • Freshbox – Allison Fairbank – Fresh Box is the first home food preservation system that brings an established industrial food packing technology to the home consumer.
  • Legal Software Solutions (Berniesez) – James Young, Terence McEnally – Our software application and process saves people time and money on traffic tickets and criminal cases by getting lawyers to compete for these cases.
  • Talking 2 Trees – Shawn Gagne – Urban trees are an unnecessary municipal expense. Our solution transforms them into assets. Using our UFCA software, cities across America will be able to access existing carbon exchanges, sell the carbon their trees naturally produce every year, and financially profit from every tree they plant.
  • Trufish – Roxanne Nanninga, Gabriela Anhalzer, Fiona Mulligan – TRUfish tests samples of our customer’s seafood products on a monthly basis to verify correct species labeling.

How can we offer Groundwork Labs for free?

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Since Groundwork Labs doesn’t charge a fee or take an equity stake in the companies that participate in our program I often get asked “How does Groundwork Labs afford to do what you do?”  The short answer is we are funded by NC IDEA, a private, not-for-profit whose mission is to help North Carolina startup technology companies.  Because “NC” is in the name, many folks assume NC IDEA is a state funded entity, but that is incorrect.

Then I get asked:  “How can NC IDEA afford to do this?”, and then: “How does NC IDEA fund their grant program?”

The short answer is you can think of it as an endowment – and there’s some fascinating history of  how it came to be.

I thought our startup community would be interested in that history and enlisted the help of John Cambier from Idea Fund Partners to help with the story – he was personally involved in MCNC for more than a decade.

A long, long time ago – 1980 – led by Governor Jim Hunt, several forward thinking leaders in the state (including some of those behind the founding of the Research Triangle Park itself) endeavored to attract VLSI chip fabrication companies to the state by creating a workforce trained in microelectronics design and fabrication.   In 1981 the state legislature appropriated $24.4 million to create the Microelectronic Center of North Carolina (MCNC) as a private, not-for-profit state-wide resource.  With that money, a 130,000 square foot research facility, including a Class 10 wafer fabrication facility, was built on Cornwallis Rd in the Research Triangle Park, professorships were established and research projects were funded at MCNC, NC A&T, UNCC, UNC Chapel Hill, NCSU and Duke.

As a result of the desire by faculty to avoid having to drive to MCNC to use the chip design resources (Digital VAX systems), in 1985, MCNC’s mission was expanded to include NC REN, a proprietary, high speed network linking the state’s research universities to each other and to the Internet.

By the late 1980’s, supercomputing was looking like the next “big thing”, and each of the state’s major universities was lobbying for funds to establish a supercomputing center.  In response to these requests, the UNC general administration worked with the legislature to enable MCNC to expand its mission to include supercomputing and funded the NC Supercomputing Center, a shared resource for all of the universities.

By 1996, it was pretty clear that, for a number of reasons, the Triangle was not going to become the next Silicon Valley and was not likely to establish a significant base of microelectronics companies.  At the same time, the State continued to provide a significant amount of financial support to MCNC, and many representatives were questioning the return on that investment.  So in 1996 the Legislature instructed MCNC to come up with a plan to become self-sufficient by 2000.   The plan that was blessed by the Legislature and adopted by MCNC had three main facets:

    1. Manage the NC-REN network and the NC Supercomputing Center in support of public and private universities across the state.
    2. Increase the amount of sponsored research in microelectronics and networking technologies.
    3. Commercialize the innovations and related intellectual property that had been generated at MCNC over the last 15 years.

Between 1997 – 1999, while state support gradually decreased, MCNC spun-out three companies, each of which obtained venture backing: 1) Secant Technologies (high-speed ATM switching), 2) Unitive Microelectronics (flip-chip packaging), and 3) Cronos Integrated Microsystems (MEMS technology focused on optical switches).  With each spin-out, MCNC lost people, revenue and infrastructure as those assets went to the new company.

When Cronos closed its Series A financing in November of 1999, MCNC retained ownership of roughly 1/3 of the company.  In April of 2000, as the Internet bubble reached its peak and everything related to optical switching was getting acquired for mind-boggling sums, JDS Uniphase announced the acquisition of Cronos for $750M in stock. When the sale of Cronos to JDS Uniphase was closed in May, MCNC went from having two weeks of operating capital (the state had written its last check earlier that year) to having an endowment worth >$200M virtually overnight.

After spinning-out three businesses in three years (and with them customers, revenues, employees and equipment each time), there was a good bit of re-investment to be done into business units of MCNC.  At the same time, there was an ongoing operating deficit to plug that was no longer being covered by state appropriations.  Add to this a $30M donation to the Rural Internet Access Authority (RIAA) and a post-internet-bubble 90% decline in the value of the Cronos proceeds still held in JDSU stock, and the amount available for distribution when the organization was split in 2003 was considerably less.

In January of 2003, MCNC, now under the leadership of current NC IDEA CEO Dave Rizzo, split the very different missions and customers of the two remaining businesses of MCNC.

The mission of the networking and supercomputing business was to build and operate a leading-edge broadband infrastructure for North Carolina’s research, education, non-profit healthcare, and other community institutions. It still operates today, known as simply MCNC.

The technology research and commercialization business was spun out as the MCNC Research and Development Institute (MCNC-RDI).  This new entity, also a 501(c)(3) private, not-for-profit, continued work in microelectronics and related fields in collaboration with universities and corporations around the country and was largely funded through Federal research contracts. As part of this restructuring, a $15M seed stage venture fund was created, the MCNC Enterprise Fund, with the intention of investing in North Carolina-based companies developing technologies in areas where MCNC-RDI had expertise.

In February of 2005 MCND-RDI sold its research business to RTI, leaving a core staff to focus completely on creating new companies and jobs in North Carolina.  MCNC-RDI was renamed NC IDEA and became a supporting organization of the CED (where before it was a supporting organization of MCNC).

With a strong balance sheet and a continuing mission to support the formation and growth of high-technology companies in North Carolina, NC IDEA launched its grant program in the Fall of 2006 in response to the significant need for additional pre-venture capital in North Carolina.  It was, in fact, born out of the teams own experience investing out of the MCNC Enterprise Fund where they saw many more interesting ideas than fundable companies.  To date, NC IDEA has awarded over $3.5M in grants to 88 startups, resulting in an additional $66M in angel and venture capital raised by those 88 (nearly a 20x leverage of funds).

In 2012, NC IDEA furthered their mission with the launch of Groundwork Labs to provide mentors, advice, and guidance to startups.   If you’ve stayed with the story this long, now you know how we can afford to do what we do.