Durham, North Carolina has long been a center for innovation in tech, thanks in part to the universities of the Research Triangle.
But now the city of 286,000 is becoming a hub for young companies looking to get their ideas off the ground.
Much of the activity has focused on the American Tobacco Campus, a former factory complex that has been completely revamped to include hip working spaces, retail, and restaurants and bars. Small startups, accelerators, and venture capital firms have made their homes there.
Plus, Google just confirmed that Raleigh-Durham is next on the list to get Google Fibre, the super-modern Internet service that’s said to be 100 times faster than basic broadband.
Tech companies based in Durham have long benefited from being able to recruit talent from the three universities of the Research Triangle: Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Major companies like IBM and Cisco have been in Durham for decades. IBM recently opened a brand-new, 72,000-square-foot Cloud Resiliency Center at Research Triangle Park.
But before Durham was a center of research and innovation, it was home to the largest tobacco company in the world, American Tobacco. Throughout much of the 20th century, the nation's supply of Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls were churned out of a series of factories on a 1-million-square-foot campus in downtown Durham. By 1987, however, the tobacco industry had declined, and the American Tobacco campus was suddenly vacant.
Today, the American Tobacco campus is a hub of activity. Capital Broadcasting Company acquired the million-square-foot facility in 2000, with the goal of transforming it into a mixed-use center with retail and office space. The project got a major backing from the city of Durham itself -- by 2017, the city will have invested $30 million to rehab the campus.
The project has transformed what was once an old, unused factory into a hip destination for startups, venture capitalists, and incubators.
A number of restaurants and bars have opened on the campus in recent months. Tyler's Taproom, a beer-focused restaurant and speakeasy, is a favourite with the startup crowd.
At Automated Insights, a startup that uses artificial intelligence to turn data into content, engineers can set up their laptops on a ledge that looks out on the Durham Bulls baseball stadium. Automated Insights made headlines last summer when it scored an investment from AOL cofounder Steve Case during a trip to Silicon Valley for Google for Entrepreneurs Demo Day. The startup is now automating 3,000 stories for the Associated Press each quarter, mostly focusing on earnings announcements.
The tight-knit startup definitely makes use of the view, as well as the plentiful space it has in its office. In 2013, the Triangle Business Journal named Automated Insights the best overall place to work in the Raleigh-Durham area.
Automated Insights' VP of Business Development Adam Smith describes the American Tobacco Campus' startup environment as 'very collaborative.' He told us: 'We're all surrounded by good support.'
Younger startups can find a home at the American Underground, an accelerator and coworking space that's part of the Google for Entrepreneurs network. With locations at the American Tobacco Campus, downtown Durham, and downtown Raleigh, the American Underground is a helpful resource for young teams looking to bring their ideas to life.
There are plenty of activities to enjoy with other startup folk, from free concerts and happy hours to campus-wide dodgeball tournaments.
Mobile product agency Two Toasters also makes its home in the American Tobacco Campus. Founded in 2008, Two Toasters has helped major brands like Airbnb, MTV, and ModCloth to develop their Android and iOS apps.
Two Toasters recently moved back to the American Tobacco Campus after several years with the American Underground. They say the campus has been a welcoming environment, hosting meetups for Ruby engineers, product teams, and sales reps. 'The ATC really jump-started the tech scene. It's a natural home for these young tech companies,' Kayla Bourgeois, Two Toasters' director of strategic development, told Business Insider. 'They've created this amazing campus that's a really hip, interesting place to work.'
Android developer Chris Pierick is the company's resident brewmaster. He created a beer just for the launch of the new office, which he called the 'Two Toasters Hot Mess.' Employees can get beer from the in-office keg anytime they want.
Since the Durham tech community has a relatively diverse mix of companies, locals say it tends to be less competitive than a major hub like Silicon Valley might be. 'There's a wide variety of people, which is exciting,' Bourgeois said. 'If you have a lot of the same types of companies, it can get competitive. That's not really the case here.'
Many cite the lower cost of living as another major benefit to living in Durham. 'People have realised, I can eventually own a home here and have some space,' Bourgeois said. The Old Bull factory at the American Tobacco campus, for example, is currently being converted into studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. Rents will start at $1,200 a month.
There's plenty going on away from the American Tobacco Campus, too. Bull McCabe's in downtown Durham has a popular trivia night.
Shoeboxed, a company that scans, digitizes, and organizes receipts and other important documents, works out of an office in downtown Durham. Duke alum Taylor Mingos and friend Tobias Walter founded the company in 2007.
Shoeboxed is located in a former warehouse space in a part of downtown that's known as the 'DIY district' of Durham. The area is packed with coffeeshops and breweries, including the startup community favourite Fullsteam Brewery.
The company's office is spacious, with a wide-open floor plan and a dart board. 'I can't even imagine living in another city that you would be able to have space like this,' Emily Farrar, Shoeboxed's director of community, said to Business Insider.
Farrar says that Shoeboxed has also benefited from the social events held by other startups in the community. 'Durham is a very tech-focused place. The Chamber of Commerce is very focused on retaining talent from the universities,' she said. 'Everyone here is very supportive of each other.'
'There's really this rapid development with a big hype that everyone feels,' Shoeboxed's Claudia Amand said, noting that six apartment complexes were built in downtown Durham in 2014 alone. Three hotels are currently under construction in the same area. 'If you came here seven or eight years ago, it would not look the way it does today,' Farrar added. 'But the city is really committed to doing it in an authentic, Durham way.'
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