Back in February, my colleague Lauren McCullough and I visited entrepreneurs in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Asheville (you can read about our adventure here). A couple of weeks ago, I hit the road again and spent some time learning about the startup ecosystem in Boone, NC.
Over the last 30 years, I’ve spent lots of time in the High Country – and loved every minute of it. Probably like you, most of my time spent in this part of NC has been a touristy bunch of great fun: Chetola, Blowing Rock’s downtown park, Kilwin’s, Mast General Store, Woodlands BBQ, some of the best short hikes on the Parkway (Rough Ridge, Linville Falls), Tweetsie Railroad, Cone Manor, Grandfather Mountain, Appalachian Mountain Brewery…but enough promo for the Chambers of Commerce.
The motivation for my recent visit was Startup High Country (SHC), a volunteer organization who wants to bring more high-tech, high-paying jobs to the High Country. SHC is a team of entrepreneurs, technologists and investors who are connecting, leading and inspiring a small but tenacious group of entrepreneurs. They are a recent recipient of one of our NC IDEA ENGAGE grants.
I got to know four of the SHC partners: Sam Glover, who runs product remotely for Durham startup Shoeboxed; Jeffrey Scott, a serial and social entrepreneur (Metamorphic Consulting); James Bance, working remotely as Director of Sales at Oath; and Chris Grasinger, he’s the High Country regional manager for Mountain Bizworks – a CDFI that helps small businesses across all of western North Carolina. Magelyn Hjertmann, a Fuqua MBA graduate and owner of the Lavender House, rounds out their team.
We started out at the Green House co-working space, followed by a great lunch at The Local. Perhaps, the most surprising thing I learned was how pervasive broadband is in the region; SkyLine has installed more than 1,800 miles of fiber in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties. In many places, you can be way back in the hills and still get high speed internet – something that is crucial to economic development in the 21st century.
I also learned more about the High Country Impact Fund, an angel fund that was established in 2017 to fund high-growth startups in Watauga and surrounding counties.
Then it was on to meet some founders…
We checked in at Hatchet Coffee for some nitrogen craft coffee drinks. We met Hatchet’s co-founder, Jeremy Bollman, and two tech founders: Zak Ammar, founder of Vixter Trash and Recycling, and James Wilkes, a former Chair of Computer Science at App State and founder of Hive Tracks. Anyone who has lived out in the country has experienced sticking your stinky trash bags in the trunk of your car and driving them to the county dumpster. Vixster is Uber for trash; Zak matches up folks with trucks that are willing to haul trash with people who don’t want to do the dirty work – and he’s bootstrapped the business to cover 16 counties, over 20 haulers and 1,000 customers. Hive Tracks provides software that helps professional beekeepers manage their hives – which increases production and profits.
Then it was off to the other side of Boone and a visit to Tsuga with founder Jimi Combs. Tsuga designs and manufactures specialty bags and shelters – one of their really neat products is a lightweight water filtration bag. It’s something that backpackers can use – but also has potential for providing clean water on a scale that could be needed following a natural disaster such as a hurricane.
We unfortunately ran out of time before I could meet with Pete Catoe, CEO of ECRS, probably the biggest startup in that part of the state that you’ve never heard of. Started in 1989, ECRS is now one of the world leaders in point-of-sale systems.
I timed my visit so that I could attend SHC’s monthly Silicon Hollar startup meetup – for those of you from the Triangle, it’s loosely patterned after Exit Event. In spite of drizzly weather and App State being between semesters, I was surprised to see more than 30 people in attendance. And as with any startup event, I was able to sample some of the local brews from Boonshine and Appalachian Mountain Breweries.
After some great beer and dinner at Lost Province, I left Boone with a new appreciation for the startup possibilities in the region. They have some key elements that can help make things happen: a dedicated core group of entrepreneurial leaders, an angel fund that can back some companies, an 18,000-student university to provide some talent and high speed broadband.
These statewide treks to meet entrepreneurs outside of the Triangle and learn more about what they are thinking and what they need to succeed are becoming one of the best parts of my job. It’s incredibly inspirational, and of course, getting to sample some great food and craft beer across NC is a highlight as well. But please don’t tell Thom Ruhe how much fun I’m having.
June 11, 2018
Written by NC IDEA Senior Director John Austin