Raleigh wants a startup spark

Mayor and NCSU leaders to start a campaign promoting innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.

As Durham gains national acclaim as a hotbed for start-up companies, Raleigh is quietly fostering its own entrepreneurial scene in fields ranging from graphic design to digital marketing.

But the city has done little to promote itself as a place where innovation can flourish, some government and business leaders say.

A new campaign seeks to change that.

Mayor Charles Meeker and N.C. State University leaders will hold a news conference today to announce an initiative to brand Raleigh as an "innovation city." A summit in January will give entrepreneurs a forum to share ideas on how to structure the effort - and what types of startup industries to pursue.

The timing coincides with plans for an innovation and entrepreneurial center, a space where startups could hold recruiting and networking events, make pitches to potential investors and brainstorm ways to expand.

Raleigh officials say they'll use the summit to gather feedback on what amenities the center should offer. The site, envisioned in downtown, would run as a partnership between the city, university and corporate partners, though details have not been disclosed.

Instead of focusing on startups, which N.C. State already does, advocates want Raleigh to focus on helping existing entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

"This would actually complement what Durham is doing and give N.C. State -launched companies a place to go," said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin , who is helping to lead the initiative.

"Durham has done an excellent job building its start-up culture and telling its story," Baldwin said. "Raleigh has a very cool entrepreneurial presence, but it is not organized - nor is anyone telling the Raleigh story."

This is not Raleigh's first branding campaign.

In June, the city committed to a two-year study on how to brand southwest Raleigh as a creative district.

Championed by City Councilman Thomas Crowder , who represents the area, the study will bring together neighbors, merchants, developers and university officials to explore, among other things, how N.C. State can connect its Centennial campus with the surroundings.

Neighbors see it as a way to gain recognition for the art galleries, museums and parks they say create a special identity on the southwest side.

Substance over style

With the upcoming innovation campaign, Raleigh needs to avoid flashy marketing and instead showcase its successes, says David Burney , a former Red Hat executive who now runs New Kind, a branding agency and design studio.

"The most important thing is that we have an authentic story to tell," said Burney. "This is not about sloganeering. It's not about creating a story that people want to hear. It's got to be based on what's really happening."

There are signs of a growing innovation community.

More than 200 people gathered in the spring for CityCamp Raleigh, a three-day series of open sourced talks, workshops, and hands-on problem-solving to re-imagine how technology will shape the future of the city.

But the talent is too spread out around the city, says Josh Whiton , the 31-year-old CEO of TransLoc, a software company next to downtown's Moore Square that makes web sites and apps for mass transit systems.

"We've got a lot of good companies, but they're miles apart from each other," Whiton said. "There's not the serendipitous running into each other when you go to the coffee shop." "Durham has that concentration. That's what Raleigh needs."

Raleigh already has the assets - colleges and universities and an educated workforce, said David Diaz , president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance , an organization that manages and promotes downtown.

What's needed, Diaz said, is a strategy for nurturing home-grown talent.

"While the return-on-investment may take longer to measure than recruiting a large company with high salaries, for example, entrepreneurial development should still be embraced," Diaz said.

The Durham experience Durham's vibrant start-up scene has been profiled in numerous magazines and trade publications.

Just last week, Durham's American Tobacco campus added another laboratory for incubating startups.

Groundwork Labs will select technology startups for three-month development programs and provide up to $20,000 in funding, mentoring, office space, legal expertise and more.

The facility will be in American Underground, the 26,000-square-foot space created last year to cater to startups.

American Underground already is home to one other incubator, Joystick Labs , as well as the Council for Entrepreneurial Development.

The formula for promoting Durham's success was pretty simple, said Bill Kalkhof , president and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc.

"A lot of our storytelling got told by the entrepreneurs," he said. "That made it much more believable that this was the place to be."

As Raleigh embarks on the branding initiative, the two cities should not gear up for a competition, Kalkhof said. They can find ways to complement each other.

"I think there's plenty of entrepreneurs out there to keep us both happy," he said. "The reality is, the more the entire Triangle becomes seen as an entrepreneurial center, the better for all of us."