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UNC opens new Innovation Junction on Franklin Street

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The office door of the Innovate Carolina Junction pictured on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

On Sept. 27, a ribbon cutting ceremony marked the opening of the Innovate Carolina Junction, a new space aiming to foster innovation in the Town of Chapel Hill.

“When they were building this space, the key word they kept in mind was collaboration,” Julia Lutz, the Junction’s community manager, said.

The building is centrally located on Franklin Street, just across from the Carolina Coffee Shop. It features coworking space, private offices and meeting rooms for startups and small businesses.

The project is led by Innovate Carolina, UNC’s initiative to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. Sheryl Waddell, the director of economic development and innovation hubs at Innovate Carolina, said the early vision for the space began in 2009 and added that the program was a “real critical need” for the University. 

However, many of the project's benefits were not fully realized until the pandemic. 

“No one was here. Students weren’t here, faculty weren't here, so a lot of the businesses were really, really struggling,” she said.

Retailers and restaurants, Waddell said, have historically relied heavily on business from the University. She said that during the pandemic it “just became more obvious” there was a need for a space in Chapel Hill where businesses could gather and attract new organizations and jobs outside of the University. 

While many startups launch at the University, Lutz said one of the main problems that the town faces is that startups created at UNC tend to leave once their founders graduate. A primary goal of the Junction, she said, is to provide startups a way to “get enough footing” to grow and stay in Chapel Hill. 

Innovate Carolina partnered with Launch Chapel Hill, a local startup accelerator, to provide office space and membership to startups. The long-term goal, Lutz said, is when they get to the size of needing an office space of their own, they’ll decide to stay in Chapel Hill to maintain local business “ties.”

In forming those ties, Lutz and Waddell both emphasized the importance of creating community at the Junction.

“My goal would be for a startup to be able to be sitting down doing their work, and be able to glance around and be like, ‘Hey, does anyone have an accountant that they used?’ or, ‘Hey, I'm having this problem and I need this kind of support’,” Waddell said. 

UNC junior Isobel Matsukas, a growth strategy analyst at healthcare startup CareYaya, which was co-founded by two UNC alumni, said community is an appealing aspect of the Junction.

“I would definitely utilize that space, just because it would be nice for me to be working alongside people that are actually doing a job instead of just doing homework. Doing my job from the library —  it's not super motivating to me, because everyone's just studying and I'm working,” Matsukas said.

Unlike a University library, the Junction is not open to all students. Physical access to the coworking space starts at $200 per month.

“I think it makes sense that it's a paid space, but I don't see college students being able to afford that,” Matsukas said.

She said she still hopes the Junction will offer opportunities for networking, events and finding internships. Waddell said the Junction will provide those resources regardless of membership status. There are 35 events on the calendar from August to December expecting to attract over 1,400 guests, she said.

“​​Most people that know Innovate Carolina know us as a University-wide program that supports faculty, students, alumni, and now the Junction is kind of taking us and bridging us over more truly into the community,” she said.

@lucasmonc

university@dailytarheel.com

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