Editor’s note: NCTA is taking its “tech Tour” of North Carolina on Wednesday to UNC-Wilmington. With a new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship now open at UNC-Wilmington, the startup community in the port city is sprouting into full bloom. Investor Tom Looney offers an inside look at what’s happening.

WILMINGTON, N.C. - Labor Day weekend tourists had barely left the beach, before the full attention in Southeastern NC turned to celebrating the latest strategic investment in Wilmington’s burgeoning Innovation Economy.

An overflow crowd of 250 plus attended the grand opening of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). The event was led by the CIE’s Executive Director Jim Roberts, the well-connected North Carolina based entrepreneurship evangelist, who now manages the expansive multipurpose facility near the campus.

Besides being the home of individual “napkin-stage” entrepreneurs and early-stage firms with a few employees each, the CIE is also the headquarters for the nascent Seahawk Innovation Fund (SIF). In a creative arrangement among the first of its kind in the nation, UNCW is a “special limited partner” in the SIF. But Importantly, UNCW will neither invest cash nor promote the Fund. Instead, the public-private partnership between UNCW and SIF allows for the exchange of “in-kind services” from the university to the fund operators, including office space at the CIE, which accrues towards UNCW’s earned stake in the Fund.

UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller has made it a priority to connect the university’s broad innovation development capabilities to the business community and other regional stakeholders, in order to stimulate economic growth and job creation in the region. Bold leadership and motivated faculty at the UNCW Cameron School of Business created a Major in Entrepreneurship several years ago. The school’s Entrepreneurship academic program is now the envy of universities across the Southeastern USA. In addition, UNCW’s Marine Science Center and the new MARBIONC facility, help facilitate research & development in the discovery and commercialization of marine-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology applications.

Like other seeming overnight sensations, Wilmington NC’s emergence as a vibrant innovation-hub has been decades in the making. General Electric and Corning were named this year to Fast Company’s list of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. With operations in Wilmington for decades, these stellar firms are helping lead America’s return to prominence in advanced manufacturing, and what GE calls the Industrial Internet Era. The region’s most iconic startup, PPD, is now a multi-billion dollar holding of the Carlyle Group, and the firm’s enduring impact can be also measured in other ways.

According to the N.C. Biotechnology Center, the Wilmington area is now home to a total of 68 companies and thousands of workers in the Clinical Research Industry Cluster that was launched here by PPD. More recently, new high-growth startups like Live Oak, Castle Branch, Cortech Solutions, and nCino have created exciting pockets of job creation for knowledge and innovation workers in the traded sector, with the predictable positive multiplier effects across other sectors of the local economy.

During the period 1990-2010, the Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) was one of only a handful of U.S. regions to more than double its population. As technology conquered distance, waves of suddenly mobile, place-independent workers and entrepreneurs moved here because they could, and the underpinnings of the region’s 21st century innovation economy identity was begun in earnest. Last year National Geographic ranked Wrightsville Beach among the top ten surfing locales in the world, and tourism remains a growth sector. The region’s timeless coastal charms have also helped spur the steady rise of “Hollywood East”. The Wilmington region now boasts one of the largest and most productive film and entertainment industry clusters in the nation.

PLACE also matters in the new world order of innovation-led economic development. Human capital/talent is the asset that matter most in successful place-based innovation ecosystems. Regions blessed with naturally appealing place-based assets, and the ability to protect and promote them, are destined to be prosperous as creative entrepreneurs and talented innovators decide where they want to live based on quality of place attributes. Talent tends to be mobile, and the data shows that innovation workers gravitate to places they find appealing to live. Startup companies supported by the array of capabilities orchestrated by the energetic Mr. Roberts at the UNCW CIE are essential to successful regional development.

Wilmington is now a serious player in the game and determined to WIN. We’re hopeful that the strength of our innovation economy initiatives will make important contributions to a strong NC economy for years to come.

Editor’s note: Tom Looney has lived in Wilmington for 14 years and serves as co-founder of Seahawk Innovation Management, and will be one of three general partners in the nascent Seahawk Innovation Fund to be announced later this year. His fortunes as a sales & business development executive rose with the industry he entered in 1982. In one memorable 10 year period he went from Oracle Corp. to NeXT Computer, highlighted by his close work over six years with the legendary, late Steve Jobs. Kleiner-Perkins backed his next step at Active Software (’96-’00) where he helped lead Sales from zero to $80 million per year. Starting his own firm in 2002, Tom rolled his NextChannel Partners into Microsoft (2005) where he served as Director of their U.S. Homeland Security & Public Safety Industry Unit until retiring in 2008.