Kenan Institute helps create momentum for creative startups

The winning idea started with Carrie Shaw, a pair of goggles and a desire to help a loved one with serious health problems.

“In caring for my mom, who had early onset Alzheimers, I always felt if I could understand her perspective and experience better, I could be a better caregiver,” says Shaw, a Winston-Salem native and founder of Embodied Labs, a virtual reality startup that creates immersive, interactive curricula to help healthcare providers better care for and understand the perspective of their patients.

Shaw’s mother also struggled with a disability that blocked her left field of vision in both eyes. “We had to protect her left side and put everything on her right side so she could see it,” recalls Shaw, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill who went on to earn a master’s degree in biomedical visualization from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“To help her other caregivers, I made these goggles that had the left side blocked off. It was a quick way to show them something that was a little complicated to explain with words so they could understand her visual disability quickly.”

Embodied Labs recently took the top prize — $25,000 in venture funding designed to help creative entrepreneurs develop their business models — at Creative Startups’ new Southeastern Accelerator program in Winston-Salem. Ten teams, chosen from a field of more than 100 applicants, competed for a total of $50,000 in seed funding.

After completing a six-week online course using Stanford University’s interactive entrepreneurship curriculum, the teams gathered for a weeklong “Deep Dive” at Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in late September. The program, spearheaded by the Center for Creative Economy (CCE), was  sponsored by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, among others.

Highlights of the week included one-on-one mentoring sessions with an impressive array of creative leaders who helped the teams move their business concepts beyond the launch stage, as well as Demo Night, a community-wide event at Biotech Place during which the teams pitched their products to more than 250 business leaders, potential investors and other guests.

The winning team has strong ties to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Erin Washington, who attended UNCSA’s high school program in music, co-founded Embodied Labs with sister Carrie; Ryan Lebar, a 2016 graduate of UNCSA’s School of Drama, is creative director of the company. 

Teams that competed in Creative Startups Winston-Salem

  • Alan Henderson Studio of Winston-Salem, a custom letterpress and design studio.
  • Bodhe of Kernersville, a developer of therapeutic medical apparel.
  • Devoted Human of Asheville, which supports the creative community by offering handcrafted goods for animal lovers and their pets while giving back to animal rescue organizations.
  • Embodied Labs of Chicago, Illinois, a creator of custom immersive, interactive, health education curricula to help healthcare providers understand the perspective of vulnerable patient populations.
  • M.I.D. Goods of Nashville, Tennessee, a producer silkscreened prints and goods inspired by the state.
  • Muddy Creek Café of Winston-Salem, a cafe and music venue with an emphasis on hearty food and live music.
  • Partnr of Atlanta, Georgia, which links creative resources for short-term projects involving everything from app development to film, digital design, music, photography and product design.
  • Redress Raleigh of Raleigh, which supports independent eco-conscious designers through an educational and mentorship program, fashion shows and events aimed at growing the market for responsibly produced fashion.
  • Taller Nu of Mexico City, a design studio interested in the exploration of industrial and traditional craftsmanship processes.
  • The Feeling Friends of Winston-Salem, which produces content to guide parents, caregivers, educators and clinicians to teach children how to identify, express and manage their feelings.

Second place, and $15,000, went to The Feeling Friends, founded by Winston-Salem native Karen Cuthrell to help parents, caregivers, educators and clinicians teach children how to express their feelings. Muddy Creek Cafe & Music Hall, a venue in historic Bethania that emphasizes hearty food, great conversation and live music, took third place and $10,000.

Cuthrell, inspired to create a line of plush toys and books about managing feelings because her daughter battled depression at a young age, described her experience with Creative Startups as “life changing.”

I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on training, and I’ve never walked away with something as valuable as Creative Startups ... Our creativity was celebrated.

Karen Cuthrell, founder of The Feeling Friends

“I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on training, and I’ve never walked away with something as valuable as Creative Startups,” says Cuthrell, who plans to use her prize money to buy prototypes and conduct focus groups. “The mentors, the one-on-one conversations, the personal interest that people gave you, understanding that you were a creative company. For the first time, we were smiled upon instead of being frowned upon. Our creativity was celebrated.”

Shana Whitehead, who owns and operates Muddy Creek Cafe & Music Hall with partner Bill Heath, plans to enlarge and weatherize the cafe’s front patio for use as a music venue, as well as invest in outdoor sound equipment. Muddy Creek currently moves concerts indoors during cold weather and has to turn people away because of space restrictions.

“The mentoring really helped us define our business model and helped us realize what areas we need to focus some attention on,” says Whitehead, who learned about the accelerator through her participation in the Kenan Institute’s Arts Enterprise Lab.

“We just learned so much from people who are experts in their field who helped us in all aspects of business — finance, design, accounting, marketing and legal. We are still trying to digest everything we learned.”

Organizers say that Winston-Salem was the perfect venue for an accelerator focused on creatives.

“Creative enterprise is part of our DNA and the business community is recognizing that now,” says Margaret Collins, Executive Director of CCE. “Creative enterprises are not just solo artists — painters, potters and songwriters. We are enterprises that are solving problems for customers, have value to society and have business models that can earn revenue and scale.”

J.D. Wilson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Excalibur Enterprises Inc. and a member of Kenan Institute’s Board of Advisors, served as both sponsor and mentor for Deep Dive week.

“We are the City of Arts and Innovation, and to be a brand, you can’t just say you are something. It has to be authentic,” Wilson says. “There are all sorts of examples of how innovative we are. Look at the Innovation Quarter. Look over on Waughtown and Main streets — the School of the Arts is unique in the world. And it is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.”

Likewise, serving as a primary sponsor for the program was a perfect fit for the Kenan Institute and UNCSA. That’s because building creative community is among the Institute’s primary missions, says Executive Director Corey Madden.

“Being in community with each other is one dimension of that mission; another is to build a more sustainable arts ecosystem in Winston-Salem and nationally by example,” says Madden, who also served as a mentor for Creative Startups Winston-Salem.

“We are in the middle of a city-wide conversation to grow our creative economy,” Madden explains. “Here in Winston-Salem, we have made a huge step forward, because there is a greater understanding that creative industries are a economic sector that we can grow. Beyond the arts themselves, digital media, design and communication are integral to every workplace, and all of these are led by creative workers.”

Dalton Grein, Fund Executive for Piedmont Angel Network, believes that investors who fail to embrace the creative industry will miss out on unique opportunities.

“We have 26 portfolios, including a couple in the creative space but not that many. That is one reason I wanted to be a part of this,” says Grein, another mentor for Creative Startups.

“Look at the growth that is taking place in the creative industry — it’s huge — and the demographic shift, the fact that millennials are flocking to that space,” Grein notes. “We tend to disregard it, but I think that is wrong going forward. The landscape is changing.”

Grein says he and others involved with Creative Startups Winston-Salem already are talking about next steps.

We are trying to do all we can with physical space, connectivity, startup money and mentorship to get the word out to folks around the country that if you want to start up a business, Winston-Salem is one of the places you should go for all of those reasons.

J.D. Wilson, Excalibur Enterprises Inc.

“Let’s be honest, without the Kenan Institute we wouldn’t have the action and the momentum that we now have to become a ‘best in class’ place to go for creative startups,” he says. “This wasn’t a one-and-done thing. There is a bigger movement happening here and that was just the first step.”

Wilson agrees. “We are trying to do all we can with physical space, connectivity, startup money and mentorship to get the word out to folks around the country that if you want to start up a business, Winston-Salem is one of the places you should go for all of those reasons.”

Ultimately, Madden hopes the work of Creative Startups will broaden the mindset of the city’s business community.

“I’m hoping a year from now that senior businessmen and women in our community say, ‘I’d really like to have a creative person on our team when I start something’ — someone who is deeply educated as a creative entrepreneur to ask questions, to help people go further, to imagine more creative problem-solving,” she says.

“It’s what businesses are really looking for.”

October 20, 2016