Editor’s note: Jim Roberts is the founding Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and the Blue Ridge Angel Investors Network.
ASHEVILLE,The most obvious challenge that I had when leading the effort to start the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council (BREC) for AdvantageWest was to reverse the brain drain that had happened in the mountains of North Carolina for generations. This can only happen by creating career opportunities that bright young professionals desire. Desire strong enough that recent local college graduates resist the temptation to move to Charlotte, Raleigh or the nation’s leader in brain gain, Atlanta.
To create desirable career opportunities, the mountain region had to fill in some gaps in the new economy business infrastructure to create a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs to create new companies. Not the traditional infrastructure of roads, sewer, water, sites, quality labor, and incentives that continue to be necessary for manufacturers. Entrepreneurs are interested in regions that already have broadband and wireless Internet, professional service providers, private equity capital, sales and marketing training, low cost “incubator” space and inclusiveness in regional, state and national conferences and associations. The amount of angel capital invested in WNC has been raised from $0 reported in the Council for Entrepreneurial Development Venture Report in 2002 to over $4 million raised by companies in the mountain region in 2005.
This approach also requires patience. Brain drain that has been happening since the Great Depression cannot be reversed in three years. But we are beginning to see results–one job at a time.
BUILDERadius is the best example of retaining our best and brightest in the mountain region. BUILDERadius is the best known software company in the Asheville area. BUILDERadius has a software solution for the residential construction industry that allows building inspectors to communicate to contractors via mobile phone software versus multiple trips to the county permit offices. BUILDERadius was the first company west of Charlotte to ever present at a Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) Conference when the company was selected for the InfoTech Conference in 2002.
BUILDERadius has grown its presence in downtown Asheville from a small office to a whole floor with beautiful mountain and skyline views. The company has made it a priority to hire local college graduates versus the expensive process of recruiting. One third of the staff is made up of graduates from UNC Asheville, Montreat, and Asheville natives that went to Clemson and Wofford.
We hope that when BUILDERadius has an exit event, such as an acquisition by a larger company, the original investors will invest their gains in more companies, the founders will become angel investors and serial entrepreneurs and the employees will gather and start another knowledge based company to further the momentum of the entrepreneurial culture. (In the spirit of full disclosure, the CEO Bill Ward was one of the leaders that recruited me to the mountains from the Charlotte area after he attended my FirstRound Bootcamp for Entrepreneurs.)
The success of BUILDERadius has led to more confidence for other mountain region entrepreneurs and an increase in our statewide business profile so we can successfully recruit entrepreneurs to the mountain region. Navigational Sciences is one of those success stories. NavSci is using a license from one of our regional assets, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is closer to the mountains than Research Triangle Park. Navigational Sciences has raised millions of dollars from regional angel investors in Hendersonville, Asheville and even in eastern Tennessee. NavSci has begun to hire local engineering talent with the help of a Phase II SBIR grant from the Department of Homeland Security. SBIR grants in WNC have increased from 0 in 2002 to four in 2005.
Other potential success stories include companies such as HomeGauge, eGlobalDesign, Mariner Container, Appalachian Energy and LabEscape, a data visualization software firm which was chosen for the 2005 CED InfoTech event. eGlobalDesign, an email marketing and web design firm has grown from a husband and wife team that moved to Asheville from Florida. A little more than one year later, the talented team has grown to 10 with a downtown office above a new French restaurant called Table.
Our annual Carolina Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference is currently the only other venture capital conference in North Carolina other than the CED Venture Conference. This year’s event attracted over $2 billion in capital represented, including over $1 billion from California. The 2004 Red Hat Road Trip was a great event with the participation of three top level Red Hat executives that attracted open source software entrepreneurs from several southern states that had never made a business trip to western North Carolina. Despite the snowy weather this December, Dr. Robert McMahan spent a day and half traveling the mountain region meeting with BREC and BRAIN clients to get a better feel of the progress being made in the knowledge economy.
With every high net worth individual or tax accountant that is educated about the Qualified Business Venture Tax Credit, with every new client for a small software company, and with every new innovator educated about Small Business and Innovation Research (SBIR) Grants, a few new jobs are created for the talented yet underemployed citizens of the mountain region.
As a well-connected member of the business community in Charlotte, everyone told me “Asheville (the mountain region) would be a great place to live, but what would I do with my career?” We are beginning to answer that question–.one job at a time.
Jim Roberts is the founding Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and the Blue Ridge Angel Investors Network, both programs of AdvantageWest, the economic development regional partnership for the 23 counties of western North Carolina. BREC hosts monthly events in Asheville, usually held on the third Tuesday evening. Jim Roberts can be reached at email@example.com or visit www.ncmtns.biz