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American Underground: Strengthening the Research Triangle’s Startup Ecosystem

Durham-based startup hub, American Underground, started in 2010 and has been a connecting force in the Research Triangle startup community since its beginning. This year, American Underground is hosting a Challenge Cup competition to find some of the area’s most promising startups to represent Durham’s ecosystem on a global stage.

American Underground has worked with 1776 on previous Challenge Cup competitions as well as part of the Innovation That Matters report, where Raleigh-Durham ranked high among U.S. cities in preparedness for the digital economy and impressive startup activity. This week, American Underground’s chief strategist Adam Klein shared a little more about the hub’s beginnings and the region’s startup ecosystem.

What makes the Durham startup community unique? What would your two-minute pitch include if you were pitching your region on stage?

The Triangle startup community is unique because of the co-location of three Tier I research universities (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Duke, and North Carolina State) in one region. We are a powerhouse of PhDs and bright graduates who are increasingly electing to stay and start a company in places like Durham.

In the past three years, for example, the American Underground startup hub added over 240 new startups. And these founders are achieving big results. Durham saw $1.5 billion in exits in the past three years and is building one of the most diverse startup communities in the country. Nearly 50 percent of the startups at the American Underground are led by females or founders of color.

We’re building the counter-story to Silicon Valley.

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How was American Underground founded? What was the idea behind it?

We started in 2010 by a local broadcasting company in Raleigh. Our first space was in the basement of a tobacco facility and we’ve quickly grown to five spaces around Durham and Raleigh.

Our goal is to build a campus for entrepreneurs campus where startups have easy access to usual resources like investors, service providers, mentors and university firepower, but also groups like coding schools and media sites covering startups.

How does your startup ecosystem affect the local economy and institutions?

At our core, we are an economic development organization. As such, we measure the economic impact of startups in our city.

In the past two years, for instance, our startups created 500+ new full-time jobs in Durham and spent over $2.5 million directly at restaurants near our hub.

Our full annual report is here, and we produced a rap video to go with it.


Last year, one of the startups, NeuroPlus, from American Underground’s Challenge Cup competition in Durham went all the way to the Global Finals along with some of the most innovative startups representing local ecosystems across six continents. Working with startup community leaders like the team at American Underground is a critical component of connecting startup ecosystems around the world through Challenge Cup.

Applications for American Underground’s Challenge Cup competition in Durham close this Friday, May 5. Startups can apply through the UNION platform here.