Ventureprise — Helping Founders with Customer Discovery

At INCLT, we’re committed to connecting entrepreneurs to all the helpful resources the Queen City has to offer. One such resource is Ventureprise — UNC Charlotte’s entrepreneurship and innovation hub, which was designed with a laser focus on customer discovery, with programs for students, faculty and the community at large. And our work often goes hand in hand.

Devin Collins presenting
Over the last couple of years, quite a few ventures that graduated from Ventureprise Customer Discovery programs went on to join the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service:


Ascend GoalsGig Connected


Current INCLT Ventures

Dormitory 101

Smart Girls HQ
Pollination Apothecary

Ventureprise helps founders lay a strong foundation for their business. Then, our mentors have helped them to grow and scale.

To illustrate the impact of Ventureprise, let’s take the story of Dr. Margaret Kocherga, Ph.D. As co-founder of Light & Charge Solutions, she knew a market existed for organic light-emitting diode technology, but she didn’t know how to break through and connect with the right customers. Then, she found Ventureprise. 

Kocherga, Margaret

Kocherga participated in the Spring 2019 cohort of the Ventureprise Launch National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program for her venture. Through Ventureprise, she received funding to travel to trade shows on the West Coast to network with potential customers and learn more about how her materials could help. 

Then, in April 2020, she was selected for Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI), an entrepreneurship program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, where she’ll take part in a two-year fellowship. 

“Margaret came through these programs and discovered that she was very entrepreneurial and she wanted to be in the startup world,” said Devin Collins, interim executive director of Ventureprise. “She wanted to continue to take her technology out of the lab and not just be a professor but go start a company. Now over the last year, she’s worked towards that.”

Ventureprise played a critical role in that process. 

The program is one of the oldest programs in Charlotte’ entrepreneurial ecosystem. It began as the Ben Craig Center in 1986 and was one of the nation’s earliest small business incubators. Now funded through the university and grant programs, Ventureprise hosts a variety of launch programs for early-stage startups. For science-based startups, there’s the I-Corps program, which equips students, faculty and staff with customer discovery knowledge so they can introduce research-driven projects to the marketplace and prepare for the national I-Corps program.

Similar to the I-Corps program, the Ventureprise Launch NC IDEA Program helps startups both on- or off-campus test their innovations with the goal of assessing their commercial viability. Both programs take place in six-week cohorts of eight to 12 teams. Ventureprise accepts applications on a rolling basis and is free for participants. 

We have a variety of stages,” said Laura Smailes, assistant director. “Some people have revenue. Some people are fleshing out their idea and building something that may not be finished at this point. Everybody’s able to relate to each other.” 

Idea-stage ventures are also eligible, as long as participants have made progress or gained traction. Customer discovery can be equally important for funded ventures, too.

“We’ve had teams that have raised $800,000 and then come to participate because they built the wrong product to begin with for the wrong customer,” Collins said. “Now, they have to pivot to a new customer.”

Customer discovery requires some pounding the pavement and cold calls, which can seem frightening on the surface. Collins has enjoyed watching participants’ mentalities shift over the course of the six-week program. He has also seen the outreach result in students landing jobs. 

“After 30 interviews, students are suddenly surprised that people will talk to them,” Collins said. “It’s like muscle memory. Once you start and become comfortable, it becomes much easier.” 

Ventureprise also helps eligible startups lay the groundwork to compete for additional funding. Like Kocherga, several participants have gone on to receive $10,000 microgrants from NC IDEA. 

Once the cohort begins, participants take part in weekly lessons — most recently, in a virtual setting — with a discussion of topics such as value propositions or market size. Then, teams will present what they’ve learned from the exercise. Participants are encouraged to push boundaries and consult with industry experts, potential partners and customers. Each week, participants walk away with a more fine-tuned idea of their target customer and the questions they need to keep asking. 

“People really enjoy the camaraderie and networking with the class,” Smailes said. “They even said this about the virtual cohort, as well. They meet people who are going through the same processes they’re going through.” 

Ventureprise has approximately 250 alumni from its cohorts. Those alumni then become eligible to participate in Ventureprise Launch 2.0, an accelerator program focused on developing business models. The 2.0 program explores funding sources, cost structure and other resources while preparing participants to submit for NC IDEA seed grants. Ventureprise also hosts the Charlotte Venture Challenge, an annual innovation showcase where teams can pitch their big ideas and win prizes. 

In the future, Collins expects Ventureprise to focus on providing more opportunities to students and faculty, pending grant developments. With about 30,000 students, UNC Charlotte is practically a city within a city, and the work of Ventureprise goes a long way toward nurturing promising entrepreneurs.

“We want to give all our students an opportunity to be introduced to entrepreneurship, to actually go practice so they can learn by doing and creating,” Collins said. 

Customer insights benefit entrepreneurs at every stage. Olga Muller, director of operations for local software development company Kepler Team, has experienced that value firsthand. “Customers are an entrepreneur’s best teacher. We are grateful that Ventureprise has equipped so many business leaders to think collaboratively about customer interactions.” 

To learn more about Ventureprise or apply for an upcoming cohort, visit