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How to Attract Smart People, Smart Ideas, and Smart Money

Opinion

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

North Carolina entrepreneurs are attracting attention all over the nation—and all over the world—across the tech, life science, and advanced materials sectors.

The proof is in the numbers.

Last year, more than 220 entrepreneurial companies in North Carolina raised nearly half a billion dollars through equity investments, grants, and awards from 108 unique funders, according to our Innovators Report, a semi-annual publication tracking startups and entrepreneurship in the state. The report focuses on three major indicators: investments, partnerships, and exits, and the biggest news was that 75 percent of these funders were from other states or other countries. We had investors from New York and Boston, California, Atlanta, and Chicago, as well as about a dozen international funds.

Furthermore, 80 percent of the money raised for entrepreneurial companies in North Carolina was invested right here in the Triangle (Wake, Durham, and Orange counties).

As president of the Durham, NC-based Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED), the largest and oldest entrepreneurial support organization in the country, I often get asked: How do these deals come together?

Consider the stories of three entrepreneurs attracting attention (and investments) in the state of North Carolina and beyond:

Phononic

With a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Southern California and an MBA from New York University, Tony Atti spent a decade in New York City brokering deals for a venture capital fund. He started Phononic in 2008 with some proprietary technology from the University of Oklahoma and concepts on a whiteboard. Phononic’s big idea is applying semiconductors for cooling and heating that eliminate the need for compressors; think of a refrigerator that’s silent and sustainable (freon and electricity need not apply).

Phononic raised its first money from private investors in 2009, followed by a competitive grant from the federal government designed to encourage innovation in energy efficiency. Tony moved his “virtual” company to the incubator at Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University in 2010. Why did he choose Raleigh? Because of the talent—he needed smart engineers with expertise in semiconductors and manufacturing. He told me that came down to just a handful of places—and Raleigh had the workforce, the quality of life, a good business climate, and the specialized network he needed. Looking back, Phononic convinced two of Silicon Valley’s most well known VCs to build a semiconductor hardware company … in North Carolina.

The Great Recession barely slowed Phononic down at all. The company proved its technology worked, and raised $17 million in venture capital. Soon after came a deal with the world’s largest appliance manufacturer, thanks to an introduction made through the North Carolina Department of Commerce. A move to a manufacturing facility at the edge of Research Triangle Park followed, along with $26 million in expansion investment from funds in California and China. The company just completed work on a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that will employ 60 people in good-paying manufacturing jobs with growth on the horizon.

Phononic continues to evolve. Now a full-fledged consumer products company, it is introducing new products for medical and lab refrigeration, and is poised to deliver thermal management solutions for climate control, cooling big data and server units, and other applications under development.

BioMason

Ginger Dosier is all about bricks. But not the type you and I grew up with. Dosier grows bricks through a process using microbes with the unique ability to produce cement. Her company is called BioMason, and she started down the path of entrepreneurship while teaching architecture at North Carolina State University.

Dosier says she became interested in bricks while in architecture school. Because they’re simple to make, they are used all over the world. But traditional bricks need clay, and have to be fired at high temperatures—both of which are harmful for the environment, especially as demand picks up in rapidly growing countries.

About eight years ago, she started taking courses in biology and chemistry and talking with scientists. She particularly wanted to explore whether building materials that occur in nature—coral reefs, seashells, spider webs—could be models for more environmentally friendly building materials.

This led to several years of experimentation using sand and a variety of organic mixtures with bacteria that have the ability to turn sand into sandstone. For a couple of years, she used a spare bedroom in her Raleigh apartment as a lab.

Through a lot of trial and error, Dosier happened upon … Next Page »

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