Doug Speight describes American Underground role, talks about Knoxville ecosystem

American UndergroundBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

We recently posted this article about an important new role in the Research Triangle Area (RTP) of North Carolina for Doug Speight, a former Oak Ridge National Laboratory colleague and bonafide entrepreneur.

The always smiling North Carolinian was in town with his family for a gymnastics tournament a couple of weekends ago, and we had the opportunity to catch-up with him on the new gig.

“It happened very quickly,” Speight said of the role as Executive Director of American Underground, a Durham-based combination business incubator and accelerator. He had been involved with the organization, previously as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR), and assumed the top spot in December.

“We’re a campus for entrepreneurs,” Speight says in describing the organization that has four locations in Downtown Durham and a fifth in Raleigh. “We have everything from people working part-time on their ideas to companies of 30 or more employees.”

As noted in the previously referenced article, American Underground supports 269 start-ups and smaller companies that raised $39.4 million in 2017. Speight says the organization is largely technology agnostic, although most of the participants are business-to-business enterprises.

“I was asked to help diversify the mix,” he explained. One way American Underground is working to achieve that goal is an accelerator called “Start-up Stampede.” The focus is on consumer products, and Speight hopes to have 10 companies in the cohort that begins in March.

After serving as EIR for CO.LAB’s 2014 “GIGTANK” program, Speight and his family relocated to North Carolina where he began serving as EIR for CODE2040. The latter initiative, which was tied to American Underground, is one of nine “Google for Entrepreneurs” sites in the U.S. that were designed to empower Black and Latina/o entrepreneurs to take their companies to the next level while cultivating diversity in their own communities.

“We hosted the first of those week-long programs in October 2016,” Speight said. “Eight people participated, and five of the eight walked away with a seed investment.” Last year’s cohort numbered 10 with six securing investments.

Speight founded Cathedral Innovation Group LLC in late 2013 and moved it to North Carolina when the family relocated. The company, as described in several articles on including this one, is still operating with Speight now serving as Chair of the Board of Directors.

With his experience working with a very successful, multi-location program and previous involvement in the Knoxville ecosystem, we asked Speight for suggestions on ways to accelerate local efforts.

“You need more at bats,” he said simply. “At American Underground, there’s not a stigma attached to failure. You need to open-up more opportunities for people to experiment.”

A second area that might be a new item on many readers’ list is the matter of trailing spouses. Speight says that American Underground is launching some new programs to get the spouses of individuals attracted to the technology-focused community more engaged.

“There’s a benefit to having that kind of churn,” he explains.

Finally, having been at ORNL for several years, Speight cites one strength that Knoxville has over the RTP area. “You have an area – energy – where you have a leadership position,” he says.

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