Startup Champions Network Wrap-up Durham, NC

From April 4-6, members of the HSC Next team attended the Startup Champions Network conference in Durham, NC. This group convenes twice a year to collaborate on this burgeoning career field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building as an economic development strategy. 

At this Summit, the content was focused heavily on DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion). The Durham, NC, entrepreneurial ecosystem has done an incredible job supporting DEI initiatives. The leading ecosystem resource organizations are all bought in on the concept and it defines their approach to economic development and ecosystem building. It is baked into their approach from the start as opposed to being an afterthought that got added later. DEI metrics for their activities were considered from the beginning of their project (an initiative under the SBA’s Community Navigator award).  

Conference Highlights

  • A tour of downtown Durham’s “Black Wall Street” (similar to the one in Tulsa but without a harrowing ending). Black leaders coalesced in the early 1900s around the need to uplift their community in the face of racist Jim Crow policies meant to disenfranchise the local Black community. Black Wall Street was presented to the White community in such a way as not to be antagonistic or threatening, but in a spirit of peaceful coexistence. Many current Black-owned businesses in the Durham area trace their origins in one way or another to this movement.  
  • Tour of Research Triangle Park: Though originally conceived in 1948 as a way to bring the area between three North Carolina universities together around research and innovation, RTP didn’t really make a meaningful impact until the 1990s. Designed as a way to bring the state out of being a “backwater” for startup companies, the area now boasts hundreds of millions of research dollars, big names like Apple and IBM and a multitude of startup companies all working to bring new innovations to market. 
  • Size (doesn’t) matter?: Durham has a population of roughly 270k people, far smaller than Fort Worth. Yet their ecosystem is highly connected with numerous organizations taking leading roles, as opposed to being led by a small number of organizations. We were continually amazed at the interconnectedness and quality of resources. It begs the question: is ecosystem building easier in smaller communities, or larger ones? What other characteristics are present that have helped them succeed? What lessons can we apply in Fort Worth?  
  • Downtown Durham is like a museum of old tobacco factories and the vestiges of the cigarette manufacturing industry. But, as that industry has declined, Durham has transformed itself into a leading center of innovation and startup activity. Many of the buildings we used for the conference were old tobacco buildings that still bore names like Lucky Strike, Leggitt and American Tobacco, but inside they now contained wet labs, biotech research and tech startups. 

It was fun to see how a single industry economy had transformed itself into a forward-looking, innovative city of the future. But the best part, as always, was connecting with colleagues and fellow ecosystem builders from across the country.  

You know what the best part is? Fort Worth was selected to host the next Startup Champions Summit in October 2022! Stay tuned for more updates! 

This post was a collaboration between Marco Johnson and Cameron Cushman.

Marco Johnson is the Sparkyard Network Builder, a position funded by the UNTHSC. He is a Fort Worth resident and Global Citizen whose professional journey has led him to exotic, faraway locations including Eastern Europe, Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the planet Neptune to name a few. He is skilled in entrepreneurial ecosystem building, impact investing, international agricultural development, private equity finance, and fine-tuning Weber carburetors. He is a Virgo and his spirit animal is a Tesla coil. All thoughts, views, and comments are his own and do not reflect the thoughts, views, or comments of The University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Share this post