Flywheel Coworking Explores New Model by Mixing Members, Research Institutions and Corporate Partners

Flywheel Coworking Explores New Model by Mixing Members, Research Institutions and Corporate Partners

Flywheel (www.flywheelcoworking.com), a new coworking space located in one of the country’s largest urban research parks, is serving up a special sauce to its members by exploring new ways to make connections to research institutions and conventional corporations. Ask any coworking space owner and they will tell you that your space needs to have a collaborative community that resonates with members. That community building takes time to nurture, supported by fully equipped infrastructure that allows individuals a way to step out of the corporate world and take individual ownership of their work lives as consultants, freelancers or entrepreneurs. As a result, the relationship of the coworking community to the traditional corporate world is often fuzzy at best. Enter Flywheel, with an interesting new set of tools to connect their members not only to other contingent workers but also to academic innovation communities and the global business ecosystem.

The Opportunity

“Every coworking space has its own model for creating value for its members,” explains founding partner Peter Marsh, whose firm Workplace Strategies Inc. plans and designs commercial facilities. “Because we are in the business of designing progressive workspace, we were very interested coworking as an alternative commercial solution and began to study the demographics driving the demand.”

Starting in 2012, Peter and his partner Alicia Hardin immersed themselves in research about the coworking trend, visited spaces in the Southeast and attended the GCUC 2014, Global Coworking Unconference Conference this year in Kansas City. That research convinced them that the time was right to open a space in Winston-Salem, NC.

“In smaller urban markets like ours, the data will tell you that the ideal location is the center of downtown, near adjacent restaurants, hotels, galleries and shops. You want your space to have street presence with convenient parking nearby.”

But Winston-Salem also offered a unique opportunity in the form of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter (innovationquarter.com) that adjoins the central business district. It is one of the fastest growing urban-based research parks in the United States, with a master plan for as much as 6 million square feet of world-class office, laboratory and mixed-used space over its 145 developable acres.

“When the leadership of Wake Forest Innovations and their developer partner Wexford Science and Technology learned of our plans, they asked us to consider locating in one of the newest multi-tenant building projects, 525@Vine, a former tobacco production plant renovated under historic guidelines”, Peter continues.  “That led us to consider how a coworking space could serve as a center of innovation energy and a network platform for connecting our members with academic research and the corporate world.”

The Innovation Quarter supports a diverse mix of academic and commercial tenants by providing modern facilities, managed services and special amenities. It is projected that by the end of 2014 more than 50 technology companies and 26 academic entities will be operating in the Innovation Quarter, occupying more than 1.1 million square feet and employing more than 3,000 people alongside 1,200 students annually enrolled in workforce training in emerging technologies and the residents of more than 2,200 nearby apartments, lofts and condominiums.

Going Big

“We realized that very few for-profit coworking operators have a direct link to a multimillion-dollar commercialization enterprise right outside their door. Our colocation with the park tenants and Wake Forest Innovations gave us the confidence to make a significant investment in a sophisticated but edgy design with a variety of open or enclosed spaces and about 100 seats in 11,585 square feet. The mixture of business and science tenants and the deliberate focus on live-work amenities in our minds created the perfect ecosystem for our community of members.”

Peter and his team began to envision Flywheel as a new pathway for the local business community to interact with the research park. Knowing he would need strong founding partners with deep connections in the local community he joined up with Wildfire, a local marketing and creative digital firm, and Storr Office Environments, the local distributor of Steelcase furniture. The Steelcase relationship brought into play its Workspring and Turnstone business units, which support coworking enterprises. Flywheel’s soft opening was in July of 2014 and the Grand Opening was in early September.

The combined expertise and local community connection of the partners were important to the Wake Forest Innovations. Eric Tomlinson, president of the research park, called Flywheel “an ideal addition.”

“It’s an imaginative concept”, he continues, “and I’m confident that its members will enjoy both the space and interacting with the wide range of people who work, learn, live and play here. We want this to be the center of entrepreneurial energy in the park, a place where we can nurture start-ups and make new community connections”.

“The vision for Flywheel extends far beyond on the space we provide,” said Brad Bennett, CEO of Wildfire, LLC. “We are creating a knowledge-sharing environment driven by innovation, not just a place for people to work.”

Focus on the Customer

Like many coworking spaces, Flywheel offers short- and long-term memberships with access to casual and contemporary environments, comprised of many kinds work and play areas. Workspace options include functional open coworking desks & tables, accommodating team spaces and customizable enclosed office spaces. Members can utilize a variety of imaginative & comfortable soft-seating areas, the IQ Court (basketball court & event space), pool hall with billiards & darts, coffee bar with kitchenette, and conference rooms equipped with large monitors, collaboration technology, video conferencing capability, conference phones and whiteboards.

Flywheel members have access to numerous support services and amenities including 24/7 keycard access, high speed internet, private phone booths, staffed reception area, storage lockers & bike storage, complimentary beverages & snacks, printing, copying, mailbox service, as well as other convenient office tools and supplies.

As part of short- and long-term membership benefits ‘Flywheelers’ are invited to participate in members-only happy hours, programs, office hours with subject matter experts and other hosted networking events. A monthly Pitch Night allows entrepreneurs to gather feedback from a judging panel on business plans and presentations and a DataMax Speaker Series brings in experts in entrepreneurship and a regular basis.

“That’s all part of our focus on creating an exceptional member experience in the space”, explains Peter. “Our philosophy is to ask our members every day how we can support them, what resources they need to succeed, and to network them in to the broader community.”

A Super-Connected Network

Flywheel’s unique model of colocation with academic research and corporate partners unlocks new value for not only for members, but all parties involved.

That’s why they hired Monica Doss, who for 20 years led the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, one of the most successful groups of its kind in the country. Her title at Flywheel is Chief Knowledge Officer. More aptly, she’s a pollinator – going from member to member, learning about their work, making introductions, planning programs that can help with funding or growth strategies. Monica is responsible for designing educational and social programming that responds to member needs and connects them with the rest of the corporate and academic communities.

She is also charged with making connections internally within Wake Forest University and its academic medical center as well as externally to other academic research institutions She is assisted by Wexford and their parent company Biomed, which as a developer has close institutional relationships throughout the United States.

“Because our surrounding corporations and academic institutions are part of our coworking ecosystem, we consider them to be customers of Flywheel just as much as our members,” explains Brad Bennet. “We spend a lot of time asking them what they need and apply our infrastructure for meetings, events, and start-up resources to their benefit.”

For example, a common problem shared by local corporations and the institution is that demand for software developers and programmers far exceeds the supply. In conjunction with one of its corporate partners and the local software developer guild, Flywheel has designed a series of Code Camp modules at the beginner, intermediate and expert levels. The camps not only develop talent locally but also attract developers throughout the region for skill development through programs like Scrummaster certification in agile development methods. This has a dual benefit to Flywheel members, many of which are in the software business, and can now who interact with participating corporations and incoming talent as well.

Another example of Flywheel’s business model in action is the Innovation Idea Challenge, which Flywheel is managing and launching in November 2014. Through Flywheel and in partnership with Wake Forest Innovations, local corporations will solicit teams to solve problems that the sponsors deeply care about and that have commercial potential. The corporate sponsors provide investment awards to the successful teams.  By managing the competition and providing the facility infrastructure for competing teams, Flywheel is an engine for idea flow and start-up activity to the benefit of corporate clients. Flywheel members can participate in the process as mentors and judges or event compete for the awards, creating new networking and business relationships.

What’s next?

The next step in Flywheel’s strategy is to create a funded business accelerator focused on the strengths of the academic and corporate community. “This is a natural evolution from the Idea Challenge series, and will not only fill Flywheel seats, but also bring energy and new ideas to the space,” according to Peter.

Flywheel also intends to open additional locations not only to grow its member base and network but also to apply its operating model and leverage its program infrastructure wherever there is a similar the mix of ingredients: academic research, corporate partners, and focused commercialization. As Peter Marsh puts it, “When you read the Brookings Institute report from May 2014 on the growth of Innovation Districts, we believe there is a lot of upside potential for coworking in this environment.”