Stoke a Hub for UNT Innovators

Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Members of TechMill Denton gather for a meeting at Stoke Coworking in Denton.
Members of TechMill Denton gather for a meeting at Stoke Coworking in Denton.

Emily Roden ('01) rents the quintessential Denton space for her startup ReadyRosie – its headquarters, situated at 207 W. Hickory St., are smack dab on the Square. It's the perfect location for a local startup, with passersby catching glimpses of ReadyRosie's signage as they make their way to downtown's signature businesses, from LSA to Recycled Books, Records & CDs.

But there is a catch: The office doesn't offer quite enough space for all-staff meetings.

So when it's time for a gathering of the minds, Roden heads to Denton's Stoke Coworking, located further down Hickory.

"When we want to get away, we always rent out space at Stoke," Roden says. "These spaces are a great resource for young startups."

Stoke launched in 2016 as a product of Connected Denton -- a collaborative initiative in support of entrepreneurship and innovation -- and a partnership between the city of Denton and the Dallas Entrepreneur Center. Stoke is designed to provide space for local businesses, entrepreneurs, and freelance and remote workers, along with educational, professional networking and social events, and formal and informal mentoring.

In August 2017, the Denton City Council voted to end its contract with the DEC and accepted a proposal by Denton-based Hickory & Rail Ventures -- a company formed by Marshall Culpepper, CEO of local startup Kubos and co-founder of TechMill -- to manage Stoke.

Though the management has changed, one thing has stayed the same: UNT alums and former staff have made significant contributions to Stoke, and many have benefited from the use of its space.

There are alums like Kyle Taylor ('12), former president and current board member of TechMill. He hosts events at Stoke, ranging from hack-a-thons to a multi-week coding school, for aspiring entrepreneurs. College of Visual Arts and Design grad Savannah Kurka ('14) -- who owns Denton-based Savvie Studio -- also serves as a mentor, along with Roden's husband, Kevin ('98), a former assistant director of student life at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science who now serves as vice president of ReadyRosie.

"Being an entrepreneur is messy. It involves significant risk, requires rapid learning cycles and ever-changing needs to turn your idea into something viable. You can't do that alone," Kevin says. "Stoke provides both a place and community of creators who can help each other connect to talent, resources, ideas and opportunities."

Kimberly Bien, who previously served as purchasing card program manager at the university, is also a mentor, imparting her experiences as the owner of Salted Sanctuary Soap Company. And Mike Rondelli, associate vice president of innovation and commercialization for UNT's Office of Research and Innovation, mentors aspiring and up-and-coming entrepreneurs on topics including innovation, intellectual property and licensing.

"Developing entrepreneurial know-how in our local innovators is incredibly important," Rondelli says. "It's great there are coworking spaces like Stoke that provide easy access to mentors who can make that happen."

Then there are the alum-run companies that use Stoke as their home base, like Blue Steele Solutions, a digital marketing firm founded by Heather Steele ('07). There's also Cortex Therapy Solutions, an app that provides supplemental therapy for individuals living with communication, cognition and swallowing disorders, which was founded by Sky McClure ('11, '14 M.Ed.) and Madison McClure ('11, '14 M.S.). Madison was the winner of the 2017 CodeLaunch competition, a Frisco-based event that provides seed money to aspiring software tech startups. This year's competition is co-sponsored by UNT, with Madison and Rondelli serving as judges.

Like Blue Steele and Cortex, Shepherd Dog, a company that builds and maintains software tools for businesses, uses Stoke as its headquarters. The company was co-founded by alums Brandy Thomas ('10) and David Brunow ('10), who have made the most of the resources Stoke provides.

"In addition to the great space, conference rooms and coffee, Stoke also helps with everything from providing training sessions on important topics for new businesses -- like taxes, marketing, entity creation and how to build a website -- to networking opportunities and pitch practices," Thomas says. "But our favorite part is the opportunity it provides for us to build relationships and oftentimes commiserate with other business owners going through a similar experience. We can all learn from and help each other out."

The university also has pitched in to help UNT alums and other Stoke members bolster their skills, with the Career Center taking part in resume-building workshops for entrepreneurs. The College of Information has used Stoke as a meeting space, as have several student groups. And there are ideas in the works for how Stoke and UNT's revamped Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation can partner on future events.

"I think people and companies see a true value in collaborating and partnering with each other to build each other up," says Heather Gregory, Stoke's executive director. "Every day, I see people working to teach each other, hire each other, partner to bid on projects. They have this pool of talent they can reach out to."

To learn more about Stoke, including its membership options, visit stokedenton.com.

Read feature story on Putting the Tech in Texas.

View an interactive timeline of UNT alums, including Sutaria, who have founded tech startups over the past decade at northtexan.unt.edu/tech-startups-timeline.

As an undergrad, Jessie Stauffer ('15) found inspiration at UNT's Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Read more about plans for the revamped center.

Nicole Mossman ('13) presented at this year's Techstars Startup Week, along with other UNT alums and current and former faculty members. Read their expert takes on the DFW startup scene and their specific industries.

Read about Ryan Douglas ('04), a UNT alumnus who works as vice president of operations at fast-growing Plano-based startup OpenKey while also building his own startup, CampReward.com, on the weekends.

<p>Tesa Hargis</p>
PREVIOUS STORY

Global Good