CRFE announces the launch of Innovate Charlotte — and a new program for high-impact entrepreneurs

For the Charlotte Regional Fund for Entrepreneurship, 2018 is about action.

That was the message Friday and Monday, when the CRFE pulled together members of the local entrepreneurial community to make two big announcements.

First, the CRFE has launched Innovate Charlotte, its “execution arm,” which will focus on creating programs to support local entrepreneurs and connecting those entrepreneurs to valuable community resources. Second, as Innovate Charlotte’s first order of business, it has created the Journey Program, a pilot program focused on helping five local entrepreneurs navigate the Charlotte entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is now accepting applications.

“We need to move from talking, planning, funding to actually doing,” said Walt Frye, executive director of the CRFE. “We don’t need to create everything from scratch. We have a lot of great assets in place, but how do you connect them?”

The CRFE is a public/private partnership created back in 2012 with a $500,000 investment from the city of Charlotte to help support local entrepreneurs. Since then, the group has commissioned several studies, focused on figuring out what the entrepreneurial community in Charlotte needs to be successful and to compete with cities such as Atlanta, Nashville and Raleigh/Durham in the startup space.

The CRFE partnered with digital strategy and design firm Skookum last year for one of those studies and collected interviews with 60 to 70 individuals and organizations.

That study divvied the local startup community into three core segments, Frye explained: aspiring entrepreneurs (those just starting out), emerging entrepreneurs (those with a product and some traction) and sustained entrepreneurs (growth-stage companies with demonstrated traction).

Innovate Charlotte honed in on the needs of those core segments in building out its services, Frye said.

“The things they say they need are mentorship [and] access to clients, acceleration networks and investment,” he said.

As a result, Innovate Charlotte is building a digital platform that connects resources across the community. It’s creating a physical hub, as a common space to encourage serendipitous collisions and to host events and programming. And it’s expanding access to quality mentors, with three partnerships already in place: Through a matching program, we will provide digital matching of mentors in the Charlotte startup community. MIT Venture Mentoring Service, a program that has been used successfully in startup hubs across the country, will focus on team-based mentoring. And the international Entrepreneurs’ Organization has created an accelerated program focused on early-stage entrepreneurs that will be deployed here in Charlotte.

“These activities are on deck to happen, based on your feedback, and we’re going to pilot them now. This isn’t a year from now; this is now,” Frye said.

In addition to those three main areas of focus, Innovate Charlotte will also focus on increasing access to capital through early-stage investor education forums, highlighting the successes of local entrepreneurs through media partnerships and events, and connecting corporations to entrepreneurs to advance innovation and opportunity.

“I want you to know these things are real. We’re going to start to pilot relationships and form partnerships now. 2018 leads to solutions that can be scaled, and in 2019 and 2020, I think you’ll really start to see the scalability,” Frye said.

One such pilot is the Journey Program.

The three-month program will be open to five companies who must apply online by March 28 to be considered. It’s free to participate and will begin April 2.

“This is an MVP [minimum viable product],” said Christy Harner, chief experience officer for Innovate Charlotte. “We’ve tested a lot, but we’re entrepreneurs too, and what we want to make sure we’re doing now is piloting and testing.”

The program will provide the five participating companies with guidance, mentors, facilitated connections, a roadmap with milestones and exposure in the community.

Eligible companies need to be early-stage, have some validation, be innovation-driven, have the potential for high-impact and have a local presence, said Igor Gorlatov, chief marketing officer for Innovate Charlotte.

“Innovate Charlotte is about the whole ecosystem. It’s about connecting the dots and filling the gaps, and this pilot program is one of the initiatives to figure out the entrepreneurial journey in practice, not in theory,” Gorlatov said.

Part of the goal of the CRFE meetings was to “kick the tires” of the new programming and collect community feedback.

Some of the entrepreneurs and investors who came to the meeting questioned the viability of a program focused on increasing investment for local high-growth entrepreneurs, when the real problem might be the lack of high-growth entrepreneurs in Charlotte to begin with.

Further to that, if Innovate Charlotte is focused on high-impact entrepreneurs specifically, where does that leave other entrepreneurs in the ecosystem? Will they have the opportunity to benefit from this programming?

There was also some concern about resources. While the city has contributed money to the partnership, the program will need private funding as well, Frye said.

“I don’t think this is possible with just public funding,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s got to be entrepreneur-led. It’s got to be the entrepreneurs who’ve made it putting resources into the community.”

Where that money will come from and how much would ultimately be needed remained unclear.

But amid the questions, there was also excitement. Several people cheered the opportunity to foster deeper connections and access to resources, ideas and “short-cuts,” as well as a renewed enthusiasm around the startup community as a whole — even if the overall impact remains to be seen.

“I still come back to, this is hypothesis. This is what we think, what we see. But we still have to take action,” Frye said.