While Peter Marsh was raising capital to support tech startups at Flywheel, Margaret Collins was laying the groundwork for a similar effort to assist creative ventures.
“They definitely need this help and this exposure to the business curriculum and the business expertise, and they’re not usually included,” said Collins, who started the non-profit Center for Creative Economy in Winston-Salem in 2011. “It’s not that they can’t apply to tech accelerators; they’re just not marketed to. This is a real niche to just go out and market to creative companies. They’re receptive to it, and they find real value because we deliver a program that caters to them.”
Collins founded the National Creative Economy Coalition, through which she met Alice Loy, the founder of Creative Startups in Albuquerque, NM. Collins traveled to Albuquerque to observe the culminating week of Creative Startups’ accelerator program. Chad Cheek, who owns the Elephant in the Room design-consulting firm in Winston-Salem, accompanied Collins and acted as a mentor for the accelerator. Cheek also serves on the board of directors of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, and he argued to his fellow board members that the council should provide financial support to help bring the Creative Startups accelerator to Winston-Salem. The Kenan Institute for the Arts, the city of Winston-Salem and Wake Forest Innovation Quarter eventually pitched in, along with an array of other funders.
Six of 10 companies selected to participate in the accelerator were from North Carolina, with the remaining startups coming from Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta and Mexico City. The eight-week program utilized a Stanford University curriculum customized for creative businesses, and brought in financial and marketing mentors from as far away as Singapore. The accelerator culminated in a competition that resulted in three of the companies splitting $50,000 in seed funding, including Chicago-based Embodied Labs, as well as the Feeling Friends and Muddy Creek Café & Music Hall, both located in Winston-Salem.
“Even when companies have different products and business models, it’s really helpful to have a group of people who are going through the same kind of challenges so you can bounce ideas off each other,” said Carrie Shaw, the CEO and medical illustrator for Embodied Labs. “It’s like being at the awkward middle school stage, so you can bounce all the basic questions like how you handle legal issues or customer acquisition instead of paying someone on your own like a lawyer or searching by yourself.”
The company, whose products provide health training by simulating experiences like vision impairment and hearing loss through virtual reality, was founded by four Winston-Salem natives, although it is now located in Chicago. Shaw met future cofounder Ryan Lebar when they worked for a bat biologist at the Center for Design Innovation in Winston-Salem. Shaw’s graduate studies focused on biomedical visualization, and she chose the University of Illinois at Chicago because of its reputation for being tech centered. Her senior thesis on how to illustrate first-person patient experience led to the formation of the company.
“We brought Ryan on the team when we decided to integrate virtual reality into our prototyping,” Shaw recalled. “None of us were planning to start a business. Over the year, we saw that we had created something innovative. I was set to get my PhD this fall, which I deferred to start this company.”
[pullquote]“Our playbook, our principle, is that startup ecosystems do not get energized until the local entrepreneurs put their shoulder to the wheel. You’ll hear quite a lot of talk from universities, the Greensboro Partnership and the Winston-Salem Chamber, which is really good. What really makes it go is when entrepreneurs pony up with time and money.” — Flywheel cofounder Peter Marsh[/pullquote]The $25,000 in prize money received by Embodied Labs will help the company cover operating costs during pre-production for its initial product line.
“Coming in, our biggest goal was to get mentorship, and the next step was to take a lot of feedback,” Shaw said. During the last week of the program, known as the “deep dive,” Shaw said her company “almost had some blanks that we were hoping to fill. We did that through working with someone with a background in publishing. We did something with an animation studio that we connected with through seasoned venture capitalists, or angel investors. Through them we were able to hone in on what we needed to address for our business.”
Karen Cuthrell, founder of the Feeling Friends, said she found the accelerator mainly useful as a conduit to financing.
“To raise capital, no one really understood what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m not a tech company, I’m not a biotech company. It gave us the opportunity to pitch in front of investors as a creative startup company. You know, ‘Sesame Street’ was turned down by all three networks. We’re like the ‘Sesame Street’ for the 21st Century. Social-emotional learning is trending. There’s so few products on the market right now; there’s a missing gap.”
Cuthrell got the idea for the Feeling Friends when her daughter was diagnosed with depression at the age of 6. She decided to create a line of characters with names like Lotta Love and Hattie the Hippo, with accompanying coloring books, musical CDs and e-books.
“Her psychologist said, ‘You’ve got to get her to talk about her feelings,” Cuthrell recalled. “It was the characters and the music that really helped her. We take the plush toy — Lotta Love sings about what love is. Hattie the Hippo sings about what makes you happy. Each one comes with a book so the children have a story that helps them understand how to handle that feeling.”
She’s spending the $15,000 she won in the competition as the second-place finisher on ordering prototypes for plush toys from Raleigh-based manufacturer Gann Memorials, and to develop an online community.
Cuthrell has ambitious plans for the Feeling Friends.
“I envision the Feeling Friends making Winston-Salem a destination,” Cuthrell said. “It would be a place where parents could have a great time with their children. It would bring revenue to Winston-Salem from hotel stays and provide jobs. Think of what the ‘American Girl’ series of books did for Wisconsin. I want to get a warehouse in Winston-Salem, and get a great place that people can come to that would revitalize the city. Think of what Oprah did with Harpo Studios. We have big plans. We’re going to work with the economic development officials in this city. There’s no reason we have to take this to another city.”
Sharing and transparency are the key factors in what Joel Bennett likes to call the “innovation economy” that help entrepreneurs like Cuthrell quickly access financing and launch their businesses.
“If you’re a community leader and you’re not thinking about creating a coworking space, a makerspace, incubator or accelerator, you need to be,” he said. “This isn’t an isolated incident. It’s happening all over the world. In this innovation economy, the sharing of knowledge is the vital piece.”