GREENVILLE, N.C. – East of Interstate 95, in some of the poorest reaches of North Carolina, a nascent technology industry lies amid the tobacco fields and hog farms that dominate the region.

With a hub of research activities at East Carolina University and the Brody School of Medicine, a number of technology companies have sprung to life in the past few years around the area, nurtured by the Small Business and Technology Development Center office in Greenville. The SBTDC held a venture forum earlier this year to introduce a handful of startups to potential investors, and it is trying to drum up interest in forming an angel investor network to serve the region.

“We don’t have the infrastructure of the Triangle or Charlotte, but we have some very dedicated entrepreneurs who are trying to build (technology) companies here,” says Marty Hackney, regional director of the SBTDC. “The success they achieve will pave the way for others, which will help the prospects for the entire region.”

Five companies presented at the venture fair:

  • Ectocelle, a tissue regeneration concept set to spin out of ECU this summer.
  • Janus Development Group of Greenville, which is developing specialized hearing aids, wheelchairs and other products for the disabled.
  • Phytomyco Research of Greenville, which extracts plant-based compounds and purifies them for use in drug development.
  • Supersoil Systems USA of Clinton, which has developed a biological system for treating hog waste.
  • Treyco Supply of Wilson, which has developed a microbial solution that can be used as an industrial cleaning agent.

More opportunities sought

“Once we get the shell cracked, this will be a good area” for technology startups, says Treyco Chief Executive Jim Manning. “The SBTDC is a big help, and you have a lot of hard-working people in the area.”

Manning stumbled upon the formula for his cleaning agent a few years ago while working for a rental uniform business and now counts Philip Morris, Weyerhauser and Smurfit Stone among his customers. He says he has gotten good feedback since the venture forum and is working on a term sheet with potential angel investors.

Patrick Nash, who runs Glenwood Venture Partners from his home in Washington, N.C., says his group of about a dozen angel investors would love to find opportunities in their backyard. But the group’s only investment to date is in a Durham bioinformatics startup.
“Companies here need all the support they can get,” Nash says. “Right now, there aren’t a lot of opportunities, but we think that will change over time.”

ECU recently was ranked among the top universities nationwide for efficient technology transfer by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The school ranked second in the number of startups formed per $10 million spent on research, third in inventions disclosed per $1 million spent on research and sixth in patent applications per $1 million in research.

Rick Carlisle of Raleigh-based Dogwood Equity, has said he sees promise in technology companies coming out of the Greenville area. Dogwood manages the $80 million North Carolina Economic Opportunities Fund, which is designed to invest in companies in rural areas of the state to boost development.

That thinking has Hackney beating the bushes to find wealthy individuals in eastern North Carolina to form an angel network to provide the critical seed and early-stage funding to transform interesting research ideas into successful young technology companies. About a half dozen people have expressed interest, she says, and they are making pitches to their peers in about 20 counties across the region to create a small investment fund.

Untrained audiences

But not everyone is convinced eastern North Carolina is ready for a growing technology industry.

Ven Subbiah, the founder and president of Phytomyco Research, says he has more success in driving to the Research Triangle area to discuss his company’s projects, which include a recent partnership with the National Cancer Institute to screen compounds for potential oncology drugs, than he had during the regional venture forum.

“In talking about cutting-edge discovery programs, you have to explain everything to an untrained audience,” he says. “I didn’t expect any response (following the forum) because everything went over their heads.”

Still, Hackney is undeterred. Plans are in the works for a 2003 venture forum at ECU, when as many as a dozen area companies will make presentations, she says.

“It’s going to have to be a full-day event because we’ve already had a number of companies express interest,” she says.