How to Start a Startup @ Duke
By: Austin Wu, Duke ‘18
You have almost certainly heard of startups. Depending on your background, “startups” could be anything from a tech buzzword to an area of study, or even a career path. Looking around campus, it seems that everybody is either taking a class on startups, joining a club about startups, or starting their own startup!
The goal of this “How to Start a Startup at Duke” guide is to present these resources so they can be useful to you regardless of your current knowledge and experience. I’ll start by covering what is available for you in and around Duke to find your feet in the startup world by learning the basics and how to get involved. Next, I’ll cover resources for starting up your own startup, including opportunities for support and guidance every step of the way. And finally I’ll show you how you can best launch your very own startup at and after Duke, capitalizing on the great Duke network and Triangle area startup ecosystem.
PART I — Finding your Feet
Whether you’ve just arrived at Duke or are switching focus from another industry, Duke has plenty of resources for you to get started with startups. Duke can help provide you the spaces and people to do everything from learning more about startups to solidifying an idea for a startup of your own. No matter your interest in startups or background knowledge, the organizations, classes, and competitions below can get you there.
As you first learn about startups, having like-minded peers is a great resource for brainstorming your ideas, collecting feedback, or meeting collaborators. On-campus organizations provide a great way to meet different groups of people also involved with startups.
- The Cube — The Cube is an entrepreneurial and residential community at Duke comprised of around 20 students all working on their own ventures. Both a coworking space and a home, The Cube is a space where entrepreneurs are constantly collaborating with their peers.
- HackDuke — HackDuke is a student organization devoted to supporting the technology and entrepreneurship communities on campus. In addition to hosting hundreds of hackers each year at Code for Good, Duke’s social good hackathon, and Ideate, a design conference, HackDuke also hosts programming throughout year, such as inviting successful founders and engineers to speak on campus.
- Catalyst — Catalyst is a social/pre-professional group that aims to bring together tech enthusiasts at Duke University. It has members working at different tech and startup companies and is a great place to meet aspiring engineers, makers, and designers.
- Duke Innovative Design Agency — The Duke Innovative Design Agency (DIDA) is a student-staffed marketing and design center for student organizations and departments. The DIDA team aims to assist groups with graphics, publications, and events by offering creative, budget-minded, and Duke-specific branding and marketing solutions.
- Duke Conservation Technology — A group of Duke students, faculty and alumni who use technology to create projects addressing issues facing the natural world. DCT’s social entrepreneurship projects involve creating real solutions with technology.
- Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators — DISI is an organization of graduate student teams providing pro-bono consulting and technology services to social organizations in Durham and beyond
- Net Impact — Duke’s chapter of Net Impact, a nationwide organization devoted to positively impacting society by growing and strengthening a community of new leaders who use business to improve the world.
- Business Organizations — Duke’s business organizations provide professional mentorship in entrepreneurship, including Business Oriented Women, Scale and Coin, and Delta Sigma Pi.
- StartupConnect — Any students with an interest in entrepreneurship can set up an appointment to learn more and figure out how to navigate their careers. StartupConnect also hosts networking fairs to meet representatives from startups around the nation.
- Duke EVCC — The Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club (EVCC) focuses on providing The Fuqua Business School and other members of the Duke community with educational events and career opportunities in entrepreneurship and venture capital.
In addition to the talented peers and strong community that on-campus organizations provide, there is a lot you can learn about startups from the classes and academic resources Duke provides.
Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative
A strong concentration of entrepreneurship courses are taught through the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative. In addition, Duke I&E also offers different academic programs to educate students on a wide range of entrepreneurship topics.
- Innovation and Entrepreneurship Certificate — An undergraduate certificate designed to educate students about innovation and entrepreneurship. The certificate includes courses on theory, hands-on experience, and electives on specific topics such as marketing and sustainability.
- Innovation and Entrepreneurship Academy — Learning opportunities for those interested in expanding their skill set, covering a broad set of topics from design to new venture funding, protecting intellectual property, and writing business plans.
- Duke in Silicon Valley — Duke in Silicon Valley is a four-week undergraduate entrepreneurship program in Silicon Valley. The program gives students an intensive experience in the creation of new ventures, both commercial and social, through coursework, site visits, meetings, and exposure to the nation’s entrepreneurship hub.
- Duke in Chicago — Duke in Chicago is a six-week program in Chicago for undergraduate entrepreneurs interested in arts and for entrepreneurial artists. Through internships, mentors, and site visits with prominent individuals in art, students learn how arts entrepreneurs have shaped Chicago’s unique and diverse art scene.
- P4E — A series of MBA-level classes that helps student entrepreneur teams launch new ventures.
- Innovation Co-Lab — The Innovation Co-Lab is a creativity incubator, focused on exploring how new and emerging technologies can fundamentally reshape the research, academic, and service missions of the university. The Co-Lab provides students with a maker-space, including 3D printers and a woodshop, and supports them through education and mentorship events throughout the school year.
- Foundry — The Foundry is 7,600 square feet of project space for all Duke students to build ideas from the ground up. A home to many hardware, robotics, and maker organizations, it is a great place to create alongside other engineers and entrepreneurs.
- Bullpen — Home of the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, the Bullpen is a space for duke students featuring meeting, event, and classroom spaces and is a short walk from the American Underground, a co-working space.
- Duke Entrepreneurship Manual — A collection of academic resources and articles compiled by the Fuqua School of Business about entrepreneurship. It covers general philosophies of entrepreneurship as well as specific procedures and processes involved in starting a venture.
- Duke LLMLE — The Law and Entrepreneurship LLM at Duke Law is a degree designed to supplement general legal knowledge in order to help you best tackle the legal challenges of starting a startup.
PART II — Starting Up
Now once you have gotten to know the Duke startup scene a bit better, you may find yourself with an idea or a few potential cofounders in mind. Maybe you’ve even gotten together and planned out a business. Not sure what exactly to do next? Fortunately, Duke has some great resources to help you turn your idea into a real startup.
Competitions are a great way for you to try out some ideas, or maybe just to practice problem solving and pitching skills. Generally speaking you’ll first create or propose something to solve a problem, then present your work to a panel of judges, and finally receive some combination of feedback, support, and maybe even some cash.
- HackDuke: Code for Good — Code for Good is a 24-hour student-run hackathon held each fall. Code for Good brings hackers from around the country together to innovate and create projects for social good in tracks addressing different social issues. The hackathon has brought close to a thousand hackers in years past and is constantly evolving.
- ChangeWorks — ChangeWorks is a social innovation competition seeking ideas to spark social change through either a for-profit business or a non-profit organization. $5,000 prizes are awarded to winning teams.
- Duke STEAM Challenge — The Duke STEAM Challenge is an undergraduate, graduate and professional student challenge designed to explore new ways that STEM and Art might contribute to one another in solving real world problems. Teams select an issue and suggest an idea for a project-based solution that utilizes an interdisciplinary approach.
- mHealth@Duke Shark Tank — An annual competition focusing on formulating digital health solutions for health disparity problems. The winning pitch team will receive support and a $1,000 cash prize.
- Duke Startup Challenge — Started in 1999, the Duke Startup Challenge is a year-long entrepreneurship competition followed by an accelerator program. Entrepreneurs receive feedback from experienced professionals, access to dedicated resources and facilities, and the opportunity to win seed capital. A top prize of $50,000 is awarded.
- Duke Global Challenge — Duke’s part of Oxford University’s 2016–17 Global Challenge, a competition challenging students to take a step back from generating solutions and go deeper into learning about the issues they care about. Duke encourages and supports students in attending competitions around the world, such as airfare for winners of the Duke Global Challenge to the Oxford event.
- Hult Prize — A startup accelerator for young social entrepreneurs, where you can receive over a million US dollars for your social venture, which must address a social or environmental theme to be announced each fall by the Hult Prize Foundation. Though the Hult Prize is bigger than Duke, the Duke community is very involved and sends participants each year.
Fellowships & Summer Programs
Fellowships and summer programs are certainly a bit more of a time commitment, but are a great way to get long term mentorship from experts.
- Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs — Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs is a one-year undergraduate fellowship program for aspiring entrepreneurs. Selected students participate in a series of activities designed to help them effectively translate their ideas into action, including special workshops, mentorship, and a paid summer internship.
- Duke Startup Challenge — The top teams in the Duke Startup Challenge can earn a summer stipend for working on their startups if they progress far enough in the competition.
- DukeEngage Detroit — An eight-week social entrepreneurship service program focusing on assisting innovative social enterprises that are tackling the Detroit’s most pressing social and environmental problems to achieve increased effectiveness, sustainability, and scale of impact.
Duke and the community also have more general organizations available for supporting you in your startup endeavors.
- DUhatch — DUhatch is a startup incubator for student entrepreneurs. A part of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, DUhatch guides student entrepreneurs to kick-start their ventures through mentorship, access to capital, and alumni networking.
- DukeGEN — The Duke Global Entrepreneurship Network (DukeGEN) is an entrepreneurship organization on Duke’s campus. Run through the Fuqua School of Business, they run several events a year on Duke’s campus, including speaker series, education and networking events, and multiple startup competitions.
- Duke Law Start-Up Ventures Clinic — The Duke Law School Start-Up Ventures Clinic provides legal advice to early ventures. The clinic can assist in a wide variety of legal matters including formation, intellectual property protection, commercialization strategies and operational issues.
- Code2040 — The Code2040 Residency, housed at American Underground and powered by Google for Entrepreneurs, supports and connects Blacks and Latinx entrepreneurs with resources they need to take their companies to the next level, while cultivating diversity across the United States.
PART III — Launch
After working on your startup for a while, you will likely begin to reach the boundaries of what you can do as a student. You may be graduating, or looking to leave campus early, or just in need of additional resources. Regardless of your needs, to truly launch your startup into the real world, you’ll need to expand past what just Duke can provide you. But before jumping to Silicon Valley, you should check out Duke’s many incubators, coworking spaces, and funds for your startup.
- Duke Angel Network — The Duke Angel Network (DAN) is uniquely dedicated to connecting, supporting, and cultivating the Duke entrepreneurial community. In addition to providing capital, the Duke Angel Network actively matches Duke alumni’s expertise with portfolio companies to drive growth.
- Bull City Venture Partners — Bull City Venture Partners is a venture capital firm investing $250,000 to $2 million in software and internet Companies. The firm is headquartered in Durham, minutes away from Duke’s campus.
- NC IDEA Grants — The NC IDEA foundation awards grants of up to $50,000 to North Carolina-based startup companies to support business activities and advance projects to private equity investment self-sustainability. A listing of Duke alumni who have won NC IDEA grants can be found here.
- Triangle Angel Partners- Triangle Angel Partners is an experienced group of angel investors who invest their time, analysis, and money into early life cycle companies in the high tech and life sciences industries. They primarily focus on startups in the Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill areas.
- Piedmont Angel Network — The Piedmont Angel Network is a committed capital angel fund that focuses on investment opportunities in early stage companies. The Piedmont Angel Network is located in and focuses its investments in North Carolina.
- Cofounders Capital — An early-stage seed fund focused on software ventures in the Research Triangle Park area run by a team of over seventy successful local entrepreneurs and business leaders.
- Dorm Room Fund — Dorm Room Fund is a student-run venture fund backed by First-Round Capital that invests exclusively in student-run companies. Duke startups have already been funded, which occurs in $20k convertible notes.
Accelerators and Incubators
- Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD) — A joint initiative between the Fuqua School of Business, Duke Medical School, and the Duke Global Health Initiative, SEAD is an accelerator focusing on improving healthcare in developing countries.
- Design To Impact — A social entrepreneurship incubator providing mentorship, coaching, and resources to compelling social entrepreneurship programs created by students.
- Groundwork Labs — Groundwork Labs is a three-month accelerator program located in downtown Durham. Groundwork is also free, taking neither equity nor payment, and is supported through the NC IDEA foundation.
- The Innovators Program — The Innovators Program is a three-month accelerator program operated in partnership between Citrix and HQ Raleigh, a coworking space. Startups receive $10,000 in equity-free funding and the potential for an additional $50,000 equity-free at the end of the program.
- First Flight Venture Center — A high-science, high-impact incubator located in the heart of Research Triangle Park. Serving the initial needs of entrepreneurs and early stage science companies, it strives to graduate financially viable and freestanding businesses. First Flight has more than 25 years experience in successfully launching new businesses in North Carolina.
- SOAR Triangle — Launched in 2014 as part of Google’s #40Forward initiative, SOAR Triangle is a program of NC IDEA that addresses the proven funding gap facing female entrepreneurs in North Carolina through mentorship and advocacy.
- American Underground — The American Underground is a network of four coworking spaces, three in Durham and one in Raleigh, that is also one of the seven Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hubs in the world. Duke is a founding partner of the American Underground and has a limited amount of free access keys and office space for students and alumni.
- HQ Raleigh — HQ Raleigh is a coworking space in Raleigh, NC, containing dozens of private office and conference spaces, business mentors, and a full kitchen. Approximately 25 minutes from Duke’s campus.
- ThinkHouse — ThinkHouse is a coliving space in Raleigh, NC where new entrepreneurs are launching scalable companies. Throughout the duration of the 10-month program ThinkHouse fellows will receive mentorship and guidance from their Fellowship Sponsoring Partner, an experienced entrepreneur themselves, as well as a membership at HQ Raleigh.
- Loading Dock — Loading Dock is also a coworking space in Raleigh, NC providing lots of space and great amenities like showers, lockers, and a full-service kitchen.
Duke and the surrounding area have a great assortment of resources and opportunities for you to learn about startups, start a company of your own, and grow it to success. In many ways, Duke itself embodies many startup philosophies. Decades younger than many of its peer institutions, Duke has achieved its success through much of the same innovation and adaptation that drives the most successful startups.
As a student this is the best time in your life to try something new, whether you’re looking to simply learn about a new topic or dedicate a few years to build that next unicorn. Startups may seem like a daunting idea, but not only do you have the time and freedom to try, fail, and try again, but as a Duke student you’re also surrounded by the best resource you could ever have: peers as driven and brilliant as you are.
A huge thanks to Howie Rhee and Nancy Knowles of the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute for helping me repeatedly edit this document, as well as connecting me to many other stakeholders. Thanks also to Matt Nash and Katherine Black for helping me out with the social entrepreneurship aspects, as well as Cade Netscher, Josh Miller, and the many other individuals who gave feedback on sections regarding their specific organizations. Finally, a special thanks to Dorm Room Fund, Jeff Ellington, and David Ongchoco for providing feedback and the inspiration (such as David’s guide about the University of Pennsylvania here) to write this.