Startup City: Inside Asheville’s burgeoning tech scene

If you lived here, you could be launching a startup by now.

Going to Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina, has a lot going for it. Against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the city boasts year-round hiking, biking, and kayaking. And apparently it offers something for everyone – in 2000, Rolling Stone named Asheville “New Freak Capital of the U.S.” AARP Magazine dubbed the city one of the “15 Best Places to Reinvent Your Life”.

What the city lacks in large universities and big companies it more than makes up for with a great quality of life at a much more affordable price, Josh Dorfman, Director of Venture Asheville and Managing Director of Asheville Angels, told us.

Entrepreneurs are taking notice and heading to NC from significantly less affordable startup cities, like New York, where Dorfman was previously based. Housing costs are about 65% less in Asheville than Brooklyn.

Dorfman spends his days supporting Asheville’s budding startup scene, which will get some major industry cred when The Collider, a 6,000-square-foot business, co-working, and education space focused on environmental and climate change opens soon. Dorfman calls it “our climate tech moonshot.”

Home to the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of NOAA, and the world’s largest repository of climate and environmental data, Asheville attracts many environmentally friendly corporations, earning the nickname “Climate City”.

The City’s Startup Support

Venture Asheville, a public-private initiative to grow Asheville’s entrepreneurial environment, recently launched the Elevate program, based on MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service. The first class of ten mentees, announced in January, will receive specialized mentoring and memberships to Vistage, the executive coaching organization, for free. “There are very few programs that help the startup founder actually run a company,” Dorfman said. He’d like to change that.

The Asheville Angels network invests in startups and early-stage, high-growth companies in Asheville and across the Southeast, and members also guide entrepreneurs after investing. Since launch in 2014, the Angels have invested in six companies, including Atlas Organics, a compost service that promotes sustainable agriculture.

Southern food startups can get a leg up from Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a startup incubator that hosts 70 different businesses a year. The 11,000-square-foot facilities include kitchens, manufacturing, and co-packing space. Past startups include plant-based “meat” company No Evil Foods and Buchi Kombucha, which is sold nationwide.

Sample the City’s Startups

Got a refrigerator door and every inch of wall space covered in your children’s masterpieces? Plum Print, the first startup to receive funding from Asheville Angels, will turn the kids’ work into coffee table books (and only returns drawings if you ask for them). Customers receive a prepaid box from the company, fill it with their kid’s art (report cards, spelling tests, photos, and clay figures are fine too), and get a hardcover book in return.

We’re not all cut from the same cloth, so Appalatch uses your specific measurements and prints custom-fit knitwear with sustainable materials using 3-D printing-like technology. The company is based out of a LEED Gold Certified Mill.

There are still plenty of businesses that fear the cloud. And to be fair there are plenty of things that can go wrong when moving data over to the server in the sky. IT service company RISC Network and its CloudScape program assists companies with the transition, from planning the migration and comparing providers to analyzing the performance post move. The company hosts One Million Cups, a weekly meetup and pitch event, out of its headquarters.

Some folks start breweries because they like beer, but managing a brewery is a bit more complicated than throwing back a few. BrewStream is software specifically engineered for the craft beer industry. The cloud-based system allows users to record and manage data like recipes and compile reports for government agencies. Founder Jeffrey Cox is a member of the inaugural cohort of Venture Asheville’s Elevate program.

Food, Booze, and Recreation

For a post excursion bite try one of the restaurants downtown. Many have seen a fair share of accolades, like Rhubarb, named a best new restaurant by Bon Appetit when it opened in 2014; chef John Fleer is currently a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast. A more low-key experience can be found at the Biltmore Estate, the largest private residence in the US.

To top things off, there are more breweries per capita in Asheville than any other city of its size. For funky suds like sours hit Wicked Weed Funkatorium or for a family brewery outing head to Asheville Brewery. Of course it’s not like you’ll have a lot of time for all this when you’re in the midst of starting your new business, but it’s nice to know they are there post-launch.

It might not have a Silicon Valley-type moniker yet, but your startup will be in good company in Asheville.