American Underground Merges with Big Top, Expanding its Range of Services

Doug Speight

Doug Speight, right, heads American Underground.

American Underground ain’t so underground anymore.

The Durham-based startup and entrepreneurial hub announced on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, that it is merging with Big Top, a Triangle-based networking platform and events series for startups.

The uptake: American Underground (AU) will expand its reach to become a region-wide startup hub, offering access to real estate, enhanced programming – and now a digital platform – to connect local talent and startups across the state.

“By merging AU and Big Top, we create greater density and enable more high-value collisions between startups and the talent pool that powers them,” said Molly Demarest, Big Top’s director, who will oversee the merger.

Doug Speight, who had served as AU’s executive director, is taking on a new role: Head of Growth and Startup Programs.

“The combined strength of American Underground’s space, digital and program arms empowers startups across the region with barrier-free access to high-value networks and experienced mentorship,” he told WRAL TechWire.

Molly Demarest

Molly Demarest

AU – one of 11 Google for Startups hubs in North America – launched seven years ago in the basement of an old tobacco warehouse at the American Tobacco Historic District. Owned by WRAL TechWire parent Capitol Broadcasting, it now encompasses close to 125,000 square feet of space at three locations in downtown Durham.

Almost two years ago, AU acquired Big Top. But up until now, the two had been operating as separate entities.

Billed as an alternative to national sites like LinkedIn, Big Top caters instead to residents and recent transplants, providing a “hyper-focused” networking platform with a database of more than 10,000 registered members.

Big Top’s immediate success, Demarest said, led to the decision to merge both groups.

“Working with founders and partners, we had built two thriving communities, and we realized they would be stronger together,” she explained.

“While these brands have existed side-by-side in the same brand family, they haven’t benefited from one another’s programming or access to one another’s membership. By blending the offline and online membership, both American Underground Campus and Big Top members get something new added to their existing memberships, at no additional cost.”


Under the new arrangement, AU will remain a physical launch pad for startups and a gathering spot for the entrepreneurial community. But now, campus members will automatically receive a digital subscription to the Big Top digital platform.

The result: An influx of some 234 AU campus companies into Big Top’s career and resource pools.

In turn, Big Top members will now get to benefit from programming that’s historically been reserved for founders and startups that have an office at an AU campus. Additionally, members will be able to participate in the growth programs offered by AU, regardless of their need for physical space.

“Think what that will mean for hiring, both recruiting within the Triangle and from the profiles of would-be- transplants who add their skill profiles to our platform every week,” said Demarest.


The new structure will also bring some staff changes.

Demarest, who has served as Big Top’s director since its takeover, will now become AU’s general manager, assuming leadership of the combined entity and guiding its operations and strategy.

“It’s been a blast and I couldn’t be more excited to bring it all together under one brand,” she said. ”This is about shepherding resources and aligning people to best support the Triangle startup community. One thing is for sure – we’ve got a dynamite team committed to this mission.”

Meanwhile, Speight, as AU’s head of Growth and Startup Programs, will lead startup and growth programs, including direct founder engagement for both AU campus companies and digital subscribers.

He said he welcomed his new role.

“It enables more direct interface with startup founders, which enables me to design, structure and execute programs that support their development and growth,” he said. “We can now amplify the impact of our highly-successful national programs, like Google Exchange for Black Founders.”

The merger will take effect immediately, and Big Top’s name and branding is expected to change. However, it may take some time.

“Over time, you’ll see the Big Top platform adopt American Underground naming and branding and over time, the sites will converge to make the login process seamless for the community,” said Demarest.

Thanks to WRALTechWire’s Chantal Allam for this capcom story & photos.

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