Charlotte has become a fast-growing tech hub, and two buildings—one in the heart of downtown and the other at the edge of a massive university—show how location and architecture can yield constructive work environments.
Packard Place is located in downtown Charlotte, across the street from the French Quarter and Romare Bearden Park. Originally built as a showroom for Packard automobiles, the building features 45 co-working desks, along with customizable space and an event area where members can host one free event per month; that’s in addition to larger office suites and private offices.
The building offers 24/7 access, WiFi, coffee, and printing, as well as the opportunity to network with others at monthly member events.
Dan Roselli, co-founder of Packard Place, bought the building at the height of the Great Recession with the intention of turning it into a local tech hub. Renovations were heavy-duty; what was essentially a parking garage with three-foot concrete walls needed to be retrofitted with NFL stadium-grade WiFi routers. Now it hosts 300-400 entrepreneurial events per year.
Roselli compared Packard Place’s evolution to that of a community-outsourced project, growing in response to new ideas. For example, there’s PitchBreakfast, where two to four companies present to the audience and a lineup of panelists. Those companies have five minutes to show off their ideas (with slides), followed by 10 minutes of feedback and a Q&A session with the audience. (As the name implies, breakfast and coffee are provided.)
The Partnership, Outreach, and Research to Accelerate Learning (PORTAL) facility, located on the campus of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Charlotte, offers university-affiliated startup companies a newly constructed and flexible workspace filled with natural light.
UNC Charlotte (a relatively young university founded in 1946) has grown very rapidly. Paul Wetenhall, president of Ventureprise, suggested that placing the building on the edge of campus was important—it can act as a gateway between the light rail station opening early next year (which connects to downtown) and the university’s technical facilities on campus.
Ventureprise is a non-profit that has a 30-year relationship with UNC Charlotte; in 2014, it moved from a suburban office building to the newly opened, 96,000-square-foot PORTAL building on-campus.
According to Wetenhall, Ventureprise had extensive input on the original planning and design process for the building. When it opened, the organization offered a business-incubation and acceleration program, which eventually grew to involve 30 client-tenants.
Nick Magloski, CEO of inventory management software specialist Ecomdash, suggested in an interview that the opportunity to work in a brand-new space (with room for a multitude of other startups) was a key selling point when his company moved into the building. “When we have investors or other partners coming in to meet with us, the first thing they say is, ‘Wow what a cool building.’ It’s just a great place to work,” he said.
At any given time, Ecomdash has four or five interns, and PORTAL’s position at the edge of campus means they can work in between classes. That’s not the only point of university/PORTAL interaction. For example, UNC Charlotte’s Office of Technology Transfer is located in the building, and tasked with not only protecting university intellectual property (IP), but also ensuring that IP is accessible to companies with an interest in commercializing it.
Despite some initial growing pains (including WiFi issues and some faulty projectors), Magloski said the university and building management have been proactive in ironing out any IT wrinkles. In addition to configurable spaces (ranging from single offices to 4,000-square-foot suites), the building features a four-story atrium ringed by offices, meeting rooms, and a café. There are community-gathering spaces, which have glass-enclosed meeting rooms.
In theory, that layout facilitates a lot of collisions between people with common interests. That informality could help prompt creativity, while also allowing people to gather in the atrium (which can fit 200 folks) for more formal presentations or competitions.
“It’s about facilitating ease of connection instead of creating barriers,” Wetenhall explained. “It’s about helping technologists connect.”