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come in and say, ‘Hey, we should turn this into a TV show,’ and I would say, ‘Hey, great, you are completely missing the point,’” he says. Judging from his descriptions, the house—which has amenities like moveable “think walls” for brainstorming, a farm table for family-style meals, and a device workbench for prototyping work—ran more like a shared craftsmen’s or artist’s studio than a reality show or a frat house.
“Everyone thinks that when you get a bunch of guys together it’s a fraternity,” Maroni says. “But we had the right people on the bus, for the most part, in this first class. In general, everyone was pretty nose-down and made some substantial progress on their companies. With the occasional party thrown in.”
Betaversity, which Maroni started with University of California, Davis, student Lucas Arzola and Washington University student Blake Marggraff, operates one “Betabox” in Raleigh and is building a second that will be shipped this summer to St. Louis. The company’s high-level goal is to reduce dropout rates for high school and college students in by helping schools and universities set up instant laboratories for “learning by doing.” Over time, the startup hopes to shift away from building the Betaboxes and focus on educational software. “The Betabox is the physical beachhead to get people excited about these learning modalities,” Maroni says.
Like Maroni, most of the fellows in the first class at ThinkHouse came from NC State. If the operation can build a successful track record, “the logical move would be to do another” drawing on one of the other universities in the Triangle, Lipson says. “The cities are far enough apart that you could almost have one in Durham, where you have Duke, and Chapel Hill, where you have UNC. So even in this area, you have room for three ThinkHouses.”
But there are no official plans to expand yet. “I think the model in general is still slightly unproven,” Maroni says. “It worked well enough to keep doing it.” Now that the word is out, ThinkHouse has received “a ton of applications” for the second class, Maroni says. Many of the applicants are women, which helps to put to rest fears that the all-male inaugural class would give ThinkHouse a reputation as a fraternity.
Lipson, who first came to the Triangle area as a freshman at Duke, admits that he’s a “real software executive” now that he’s general manager of a 600-employee group at Citrix. But he says he also still thinks of himself as an entrepreneur, and he wants to help other people go down the same road. “I really strongly believe that starting as an entrepreneur right out of college is a great idea,” Lipson says. “You just need a couple of elements: a business with products and services that people will pay for, and the ability to take risks.” With support from ThinkHouse, he hopes, young entrepreneurs will have a better shot at lining up both.
Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.