It’s the end of an era for NC IDEA, which recently said goodbye to Senior Director John Austin with a colorful (if not entirely truthful) piece by NC IDEA CEO Thom Ruhe. Austin, who spent around 10 years at the organization and founded NC IDEA LABS in 2011, is retiring after an extensive career of helping North Carolina tech startups grow.
But back in the 1980s, Austin’s arrival to the Triangle was more happenstance—or destiny?—than strategic.
When deciding where he wanted to attend graduate school, Austin drew a line on a map. Having grown up in Michigan and worked his first job out of college in Florida, he had experienced both Michigan winters and Florida summers. So Chapel Hill seemed as perfect a place as any to get his PhD.
Austin’s journey into tech entrepreneurship didn’t appear predestined either.
“I wasn’t one of these kids that had a lemonade stand growing up,” Austin said. “My parents weren’t entrepreneurial. My dad worked for the power company.”
Still, Austin became distracted on his path to getting his PhD, and ended up joining a few startups after earning his Masters. Austin’s computer science background was in 3D computer graphics, and he worked in a variety of spaces in the Triangle. He served as the CEO of Numerical Design, a startup delivering game engines and tools to video game developers, as well as the COO of Division, a virtual reality startup acquired by HP.
In 2008, Austin was at Emergent Game Technologies, a leading provider of software tools used by game developers, when several startup attorneys in the Triangle approached him about creating a video game accelerator. It would end up being called Joystick Labs, and Austin joined as managing director in 2011.
Joystick Labs ended up running out of funding, but one of its investors, NC IDEA, brought Austin on board as the director of Groundwork Labs (now NC IDEA LABS) shortly after. Throughout the years, Austin transitioned to become senior director at NC IDEA and led the ECOSYSTEM grant program for two years.
During this ECOSYSTEM time, he wandered across the state, helping organizations that were aiding startups in their growth journeys. Finally, he came back to his prior role heading NC IDEA LABS, which mentors startups over a four-week period.
In many ways, Austin’s career has been a long journey to get back to his roots. Austin sees himself as a coach and teacher, and it was one of the reasons he went to UNC—thus landing him in the Triangle—in the first place. It took 30 years for him to ultimately come back to teaching, he said.
He doesn’t have a classroom, but he works one on one with entrepreneurs all the time. This is what he finds most rewarding, helping those with no entrepreneurship background find their way to their startup dreams.
This includes Revibe Technologies, which was founded by school psychologist Rich Brancaccio to provide software-enabled wearable devices as a digital therapeutic alternative for children with ADHD. [Note: We profiled Revibe in 2019.] But there are countless others, so many he can’t mention them all.
“Most of what I’m doing is helping them learn some things they don’t know and asking a lot of questions,” Austin said. “I don’t have many answers, but I’ve got a lot of questions for people.”
NC IDEA’s Ruhe originally met Austin when Ruhe was being considered for the CEO role at NC IDEA, he said.
While Austin could have been skeptical at first as the foundation brought in someone new to lead, Ruhe said Austin gave him the benefit of the doubt and they’ve developed a friendship based on mutual respect over six years working together.
“John will be remembered for the many founders he has helped,” Ruhe said. “He is the example of how focusing on practical early support for folks taking the scary early steps of entrepreneurship can have a lasting impact on their lives.”
Ruhe said while Austin will be hard to replace, he hopes his body of work will inspire others to follow his example.
As someone who has worked in several North Carolina tech startups and support organizations, Austin witnessed the Triangle tech scene explode over the decades. In the 1990s, Austin said, things were quite different. CED existed but the few startups here were doing their own thing and keeping to themselves. Over the years, the sector has grown, and so has founders’ willingness to engage with others, Austin said.
“I think everybody’s got this attitude of ‘if we’re going to make this startup world here in the state of North Carolina, if we’re going to be really successful at developing startups and growing them, we’ve got to help each other,” Austin said.
He’ll still stay involved
As Austin leaves NC IDEA behind, he feels grateful he’s not like many of his friends, who were counting down the days until retirement. He said he would have kept working at NC IDEA because he loves what he does. But now, with a more flexible schedule, he plans to continue to mentor founders while giving his time to other things that matter, too.
“I’m going to be doing that because I love helping founders,” Austin said. “So I’ll still be doing that. The difference is when I wake up in the morning, I can do that or I can go visit the grandkids if I choose or I can go play golf or my wife and I can go somewhere for a week if we choose.”
Although Austin has the humble hope that in his career he is remembered as a good guy who helped others, the news of Austin’s retirement led many to reach out to him on LinkedIn, sharing just how much he made an impact with something he said to them.
“I just sort of cringe—oh my gosh, what did I say? I have no recollection of what I told you,” Austin said. “And then they say something like ‘I remember what you said,’ and in a couple of cases, ‘it changed my life.’”