ASHEVILLE…Western North Carolina has taken a deliberate step to not only encourage the entrepreneur technology base, but also support it in a formal way.

Jim Roberts, founder of Charlotte-based networking group, FirstRound.org has accepted a job as the executive director of newly formed Mountain Council for Entrepreneurial Development (MCED). The appointment is effective immediately.

Officials agree the area, which lags far behind Research Triangle Park or Charlotte’s tech community, has the potential plus high-income individuals to create a rich entrepreneurial community. Multi-billion dollar corporations are not what are driving the economic base, they say.

“It’s been needed for a long time, and my goal is to bring an infrastructure to the entrepreneurial climate of western North Carolina,” says Roberts. “There’s a need to create more jobs and enhance the region’s economic status beyond tourism. This is a format to accomplish that.”

Roberts says the MCED will be modeled after the success of the Triangle’s Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) with four focus areas: education of entrepreneurs, mentoring and networking, communications, and capital formation. At the end of the day, Roberts explains, the group’s efforts will lead to more jobs and have the ability to recruit more businesses to the area.

Roberts, who started his networking group two years ago, has been building relationships in the Asheville area through holding six networking and educational meetings since last February. Most recently, he hosted a “Meet the Media” event in conjunction with the Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network (BRAIN). He’s also held boot camp seminars about venture financing.

Focus on best practices in developing the economy

The MCED will be an offshoot of AdvantageWest, a public-private economic development commission covering 23 North Carolina counties. AdvantageWest is governed by a board of directors and has had success in leveraging more than $400 million in private investment through matching grant programs and regional initiatives.

Mark Owens, AdvantageWest director of communications and research, says this is the right time for the move when one looks at best practices and the change in the economic development. “The climate has completely changed, it’s not the big buffalo driving the economy any longer, it’s substantial growth in small businesses.”

Owens says MCED offices will be located within AdvantageWest’s current facility in Asheville, although Roberts will be spending lots of time in the field getting the program up and running.

AdvantageWest Chairman Gordon Myers noted that small business activity accounts for more than half of the nation’s gross domestic product, and represents nearly all the net job growth we’ve seen over the past couple of years. “Western North Carolina is home to many of the ingredients it takes to be a successful hub for high-impact new business,” he said in a statement. “We have high-energy entrepreneurs, a creative culture, and many high net-worth individuals who reside in or frequent our region, yet there’s no infrastructure to bring it all together.”

Roberts says it’s not yet clear what the future will hold for FirstRound.org. “Some people have expressed an interest in keeping firstround alive, but I will not have a day-to-day role,” Roberts explains. Though he adds, “I have had four people contact me since the announcement, so it will be up to the board.”

The MCED will be membership-based and the initial cost will be fairly low, he says. There will be plenty of opportunities for sponsorship for service providers and universities. He’s projecting approximately 75 members within one year and will also focus on bringing sophisticated service providers to the table.

Angel fund in the future

In addition to the creation of the MCED, Roberts also will coordinate quarterly meetings with BRAIN. This group of investors will meet to review business plans that each may invest in on an individual basis. “Preference will be given to those companies that will reside in western N.C. and house a strong exit strategy,” he says. Down the road, the plan is to create and evolve into an actual angel investment fund of $3 to $5 million.

The venture capital community will be a critical target for the MCED and after operating for one year, it will be time to start raising the dollars, Roberts says. “It’s impossible to raise money right now because of the economy, but it’s part of the long-term plan.”

Owen also says this dedicated entrepreneurial focus is part of the overall mission and brings a balance to the regional partnership. “When we look out 20 to 30 years from now, the goal (for Western N.C.) is to have our grandchildren live in a place that’s thriving in business and tourism, but moreover, that the area is guaranteed a quality of life that’s meaningful,” says Owen. “Without small business support, and education, we put all that at risk. We cannot count on big business to make a future for us. We have to create it ourselves.”

AdvantageWest: www.advantagewest.com

Blue Ridge Angels: www.blueridgeangels.org