Bunker Labs’ RTP Base Charts Entrepreneurial Course for Veterans

Military veterans may not realize it, but skills they learned in the armed forces are not much different from skills that entrepreneurs use to succeed in business.

So says Dean Bundschu, an Army veteran and executive director of Bunker Labs RDU, a business accelerator for veterans now open in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Veterans understand how to build teams, lead them, and carry out missions, Bundschu explains. The challenge that many veterans face is translating their military experience to the business world. It took Bundschu years to figure this out. Now he is charged with shortening that timeline for other veterans.

“Instead of taking years, it can take months,” Bundschu says. “You’re helping them hit milestones that they wouldn’t have hit without the support.”

The RTP site is the 11th for Bunker Labs, a Chicago based non-profit organization that supports entrepreneurial veterans.

According to Bunker Labs, 49 percent of World War II veterans started businesses. But today, the organization says just 6 percent of veterans start businesses even though 25 percent of those in active service aspire to launch companies. Todd Connor, a Navy veteran who has held roles in both the public and private sectors, formed Bunker Labs in 2014 and serves as its CEO. He says he created Bunker Labs to offer veterans a group that they would want to join. Many of the programs that help veterans transition to the private sector aren’t led by veterans and don’t sufficiently address veterans’ needs, Connor explains, speaking at the Bunker Labs RDU launch event last week.

Bunker Labs operates on a model similar to the chapter model of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Each Bunker Labs outpost is autonomous but shares information with the other sites. One of the strengths of veterans is their networks, something that entrepreneurs recognize as important to supporting and growing a business, Connor said. The launch of the Raleigh-Durham site follows the opening of a new Bunker Labs site earlier this year in Austin, TX. Connor says additional sites in Nashville, TN, and San Diego will open in coming weeks.

Bundschu says the Triangle offers resources and opportunities that could set it apart from other Bunker cities. Besides having a large military population and proximity to military bases—Fort Bragg is the largest Army installation in the world—the region has strong research universities and well-established industry in technology and life sciences. As executive director, Bundschu’s role will include building relationships with the Triangle’s academic and business communities. He will also need to raise money. As a non-profit, Bunker Labs RDU is supported by grants and corporate sponsorships.

Bunker Labs RDU currently has 10 companies in its inaugural class of startups, though Bundschu expects the total to grow to 15 by the time the program kicks off in February. Besides having startup space in The Frontier, an RTP building owned by the Research Triangle Foundation, Bunker Labs companies will participate in a six-month curriculum designed to teach them about business. Various speakers will hold seminars covering topics such as fundraising, intellectual property, and how to incorporate a company.

Startups will also become regular participants in the RTP presentations of 1 Million Cups, a national program that gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their companies in front of other entrepreneurs and gain feedback—valuable practice, Bundschu says, for the pitches veterans will need to eventually make to investors.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs counts 775,000 veterans in North Carolina. The state has 87,500 veteran-owned businesses, Bundschu says, citing state government statistics. Despite this strong veteran presence, Bundschu says North Carolina’s entrepreneurial veterans are a fragmented bunch. He hopes that Bunker Labs RDU can help them connect with each other. The RTP site won’t be able to offer a spot for every veteran-owned company, but Bundschu hopes the program grows to spawn subchapters across the state.

“It’s much more than a curriculum,” Bundschu says. “We’re trying to build a veteran entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Triangle, and eventually in North Carolina.”

Frank Vinluan is editor of Xconomy Raleigh-Durham, based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at fvinluan [at] xconomy.com Follow @frankvinluan

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