Raleigh’s ThinkHouse Live-In Accelerator: Think Maker Faire, Not MTV

7/24/14Follow @wroush
ThinkHouse

ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Dinner at ThinkHouse

Dinner at ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Open ThinkHouse

Open ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Open ThinkHouse

Open ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Open ThinkHouse

Open ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Open ThinkHouse

Open ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Before Renovations

Before Renovations

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Renovations in progress

Renovations in progress

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Renovations in progress

Renovations in progress

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

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A "Think Wall" at ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

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A "Think Wall" at ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

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A "Think Wall" at ThinkHouse

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

The First Betabox from Betaversity

The First Betabox from Betaversity

Photo courtesy of Sean Newman Maroni

The Betaversity team at work

The Betaversity team at work

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

ThinkHouse demo day at HQ Raleigh

ThinkHouse demo day at HQ Raleigh

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Sean Newman Maroni at demo day

Sean Newman Maroni at demo day

Photo courtesy of HQ Raleigh

Yes, ThinkHouse is a place where eight young entrepreneurs, all in their early 20s, apply for a chance to live under the same roof for nine months while they start their own businesses. But here are some images to put out of your mind right from the start: Video cameras. Confessional interviews. Rivalry, backstabbing, and manufactured drama. Frat-house squalor.

This isn’t MTV’s “The Real World” meets HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” It’s just a seven-bedroom house in Raleigh, about halfway between NC State and the downtown district, where the people behind the HQ Raleigh co-working space on South Harrington Street are trying a new experiment designed to thwart local brain drain.

“My long term vision is to help build an on-ramp for young persons who want to be entrepreneurs,” says ThinkHouse co-founder Jesse Lipson, himself a serial entrepreneur who started Raleigh-based ShareFile and sold it to Citrix Systems in 2011. “Our goal is really to keep talent in the Raleigh-Durham area, rather than having it relocate to somewhere like California.”

The first class of ThinkHouse Fellows finished its nine-month term in June and is busy making the leap into the business world, where they’re pursuing ideas as diverse as mobile apps to support civic action, summer camps for young skateboarders, and cargo containers outfitted as maker-lab prototyping spaces for schools and universities. Now Lipson and his co-founders are readying ThinkHouse, at 410 Cutler Street in historic Boylan Heights, for the arrival of the second class in September.

It’s common to see startup accelerators popping up in cities where there’s a burgeoning population of entrepreneurs; in Xconomy’s last census back in 2012, we counted at least 120 of them. Typically, accelerator programs last three to nine months. Startup teams are usually guided through an intense period of product prototyping and feedback, mentorship, and networking assistance, culminating in a “demo day” where participating teams pitch to investors. In return, the accelerator founders usually get a small percentage of each team’s founding equity.

The eight inaugural ThinkHouse fellows—all men, as it turned out—did give demo day presentations at HQ Raleigh on June 13. But that’s just about the only trait the operation shares with other startup accelerators.

For one thing, Lipson and his co-founders Jason Widen, Brooks Bell, and Christopher Gergen don’t ask ThinkHouse residents for an equity stake in their companies. Even though they’d like to open a series of ThinkHouses in the Triangle and beyond, “we are not trying to build a huge, profitable business; money is not really the motivation,” Lipson says. Right now, ThinkHouse’s revenues consist only of rent from the fellows of about $300 per month per person. In the future, the hope is to sign up corporate sponsors, Lipson says.

Another big difference, obviously, is that the post-collegiate entrepreneurs-in-training at ThinkHouse aren’t just showing up for the occasional mentoring session, group dinner, or guest lecture. They’re living and working in the same space, seven days a week for nine months.

The theory behind the residential program, according Lipson, is that a full-time living environment can provide young entrepreneurs with a built-in community during a time in their lives when it’s easy to succumb to a feeling of isolation.

“Coming out of college, it can be lonely,” Lipson says. “Especially as an entrepreneur. When you’re starting your own business, it’s just you, all alone. Living in the same house, they can jump from college to being an entrepreneur and still have community support.”

The theory worked out pretty well in practice during ThinkHouse’s first year, according to Sean Newman Maroni, one of the three co-founders of a ThinkHouse-supported startup called Betaversity. The company retrofits cargo containers with 3D printers and other equipment needed for a portable, collaborative prototyping facility, then rents the units to universities. Maroni calls himself “the oddball” among the first group of ThinkHouse fellows—he was the only one still in college. (He’s a 22-year-old senior at NC State, with a few credits left to finish toward his mechanical engineering degree.)

The biggest benefit of living at ThinkHouse, Maroni says, was the opportunity to learn from the other fellows. “The most valuable stuff is maybe almost the most cliché part, but it was the late-night, serendipitous collisions between different ideas and companies,” he says. “Everyone has a different personality and skill set. Saul [Selwyn Flores, of Pixbit] is a brilliant graphic designer and helped with the UI and UX for a lot of the apps coming out of ThinkHouse, and the demo day presentations. David [Shaner, of Offline Media] had raised the most money in the house, and was able to help with pitching. I was able to help with engineering and maker stuff. Hopefully if you get eight crazy entrepreneurs together, they complement each other.”

The ThinkHouse fellows weathered the inevitable “Real World” comparisons well, Maroni says. “Every now and then, somebody would 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.