In our efforts to grow the innovation economy at the North Carolina coast, our innovations are not just technology companies or apps.

We don’t have the benefit of the output of the Research Triangle Park that for 50 years has been spinning out innovators with large salaries and personal savings from working at large established companies. Nor do we have thirty years of groundwork to establish an entrepreneurial culture from great organizations like CED.

But we do have a quality of place that is unique and desirable. We continue to add assets and talent to grow the innovation economy as we invite the talented people of the Triangle to take a ride down I-40 East, or as I call it the Coastal Corridor. As Raleigh and Durham continue to make the top of national rankings for innovation assets, infrastructure and results, Wilmington continues to build relationships with those same investors, entrepreneurs and influencers to help us make real progress at the coast.

More than a vacation spot

Wilmington has a fierce independent spirit which comes from being the offspring of pirates, according to jester and real estate expert John Hinnant, and a sense of isolation before I-40 reached the North Carolina coast in 1989. Wilmington is often more clustered with the charming southern coastal neighbors like Charleston and Savannah than the urban centers like Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh.

I understand that Wilmington is thought of as a place to enjoy weekends, holidays and retirementat the beach. If Wilmington can just turn that corner and continue progress like the recent IPO of Live Oak Bank, we can get on the radar for people who track the innovation economies as younger companies grow like NextGlass, nCino and Go Energies, the 10th fastest growing company in US according to INC Magazine.

Wilmington has been known in the past for the strength of the railroad, potential of the seaport, the services of the Clinical Research industry and the clean high dollar impact of the film industry, with three number one movies made here in 2013 including Iron Man starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr..

So in recognition that we do not have a specific industry focus, we have some freedom to reinvent our area’s economy when opportunities arise. We are very proud of the five companies from WIlmington who were chosen for the upcoming CED Tech Venture Conference including National Speed, Xili Mobile, Trimlio, Flippze and that are following the success of NextGlass and nCino last year.

A new area of focus is on product related companies with the Elite Innovations MakerSpace, a product development company as well as a traditional makerspace. The MakerSpace has been a great addition to the Wilmington market even though it is still an under the radar asset. With experienced innovators and all the tools an innovator would need to create a prototype, Elite Innovations has done so well , they were one of the winners of the recent Coastal Entrepreneur Awards. Elite Innovations has also become an employer of university students and military veterans who have “tinkering skills” or are handy with tools.

Recently I worked with three local talented assets of the Wilmington region to promote the possibilities of niche manufacturing through the prototyping capabilities of the MakerSpace. The idea was to have an event to help the innovators take the next three steps:

Protect the idea, Develop the physical prototype and Start the business. I have been in entrepreneurial development for 15 years throughout North Carolina and we all know the idea people who NEVER take the next step to make something of that idea.

So I invited three people who would eliminate the anxiety of what to do next and asked them to bring three things each for the audience members to take away and act upon. This event was a huge success with our highest registrations numbers yet and was moderated by local business attorney Mitzi Kincaid of Kincaid and Associates who is always the highlight of the Coastal Entrepreneur Awards with her energy and humor.

Ron Pontiff is a UNC Wilmington graduate and a former member of the Seahawk golf team. Ron is an example of an innovative mind where he followed through with one of his best ideas and created a company. A citizen of New Bern, NC,

Ron still has some roots in Wilmington. Ron’s biggest success is the SafeTStool, a non slip stool and stable design to help people safely reach for things that through size or strength may not be able to reach on their own. Ron has brought on local New Bern investors and taken his product to the QVC television channel and made a nice profit through volume.

Ron’s three pieces of advice include

  • Find a solution to a problem – Ron’s idea came from an awful tragedy as his neighbor’s daughter slipped at the bathroom sink and her toothbrush became lodged in the back of her throat.
  • Even with the best idea, success does not happen overnight – 3 years from concept to manufacturing
  • Surround yourself with like minded people who can support ideas and give constructive feedback

Doug Scholer is a great man who I was introduced to through one of my mentors, Brian McMerty of Carlyle and Conlan Executive Search firm, who helped recruit me to the Wilmington area. Besides a love of Notre Dame sports, Doug is a talented and passionate patent attorney with Toler Law Group in Austin, TX where they represent Fortune 50 innovators. Yes, the firm is based in Austin, TX, my personal favorite city, but he CHOOSES to live at the North Carolina coast with his family. Doug has been extremely supportive of the growing young innovation economy in Wilmington by mentoring student and military veteran entrepreneurs through the patent process. Doug is himself a military veteran, a common sight in this part of North Carolina and he is eager to help veterans thrive as entrpreneurs after their service as a way to give back.

Doug’s three pieces of advice:

  • File your patents BEFORE working on the prototype to establish an earlier date to prevent competition from similar ideas across the globe.
  • NEVER disclose your idea in public before filing the patent, especially important in tech transfer situations when the idea may come from academic research.
  • Please do more than a surface amount of research about competitive ideas through the US Patent Office and simple Google search. If a potential investor hears that you have no competition , but then does a keyword search and finds better products, you have lost credibility.

Andrew WIlliams is the Founder of the Elite Innovations LLC and Wilmington’s premier MakerSpace. His is one of my favorite stories since I began working in Wilmington more than two years ago when I moved from Raleigh. UNC Chapel Hill Professor Ted Zoller is an old friend of mine for over ten years and he called me a few months after the accelerator opened in Wilmington.

When Ted Zoller calls, you pick up the phone because you can never get him on the phone, so I knew the call must have been important. Ted told me he had a student in his MBA class that was a military veteran and a WIlmington native who was moving back to the area and wanted to open a MakerSpace.

Most people would say, “Yeah OKAY , a young kid wants to do something and we shall see where this goes.” But again, Andrew came at the recommendation of a qualified source who had seen hundreds of students with wild ideas.

Well of course, Andrew was no “wet behind the ears” kid student. Andrew had spent 5 ½ years in the Marines and a combat veteran. He also already had products he had developed at various stages from problems he had seen in combat and in the civilian world.

For example, his product TacLace. I am not a military veteran, but I can imagine that things get hectic if suddenly you have to go from resting to combat ready in seconds during warfare and the task of tying your boots is time consuming in an emergency.

Andrew developed Taclace as a much quicker way to tie up the boots through the many eye laces. Taclace reduces the time to secure your boots by over seventy-five percent, saving valuable time and lives of the people who fight for our freedom.

Another one of his products that Andrew has worked on is the Origo Safe, a phone docking device to prevent commercial truck drivers from texting while driving. Commercial trucking companies has very expensive assets and they were having accidents every six weeks as the truckers were texting. Think of the cost of the truck, the assets in the trucks and the liability damage of hitting another automobile on the road. Since the test program of the anti texting phone docking station, there have been no wrecks in 24 months and made the roads safer for us all not to mention Return on Investment within 16 days of purchase.

Andrew’s three pieces of advice :

  • Having a prototype helps when meeting with investors. The product is your vision and to have a physical prototype ready helps the investors see and hold your vision.
  • You are only as strong as your network. Holding on tightly to your idea prevents other people from opening up their network of contacts to help your company grow.
  • Listen to your patent attorney about the challenges of risk and insight into the consequences of inadequate legal coverage.

This summary of the August 20th event at Ironclad Brewery was done with the help of Edward Hall, Manager of the Elite Innovations Makerspace and Founder of Petrics, a pet tech company that creates Internet of Things products that improve the health of pets while keeping their owners informed. Elite Innovations just announced a Grand Opening of their new downtown location this Thursday as they needed new office space in addition to the prototyping space.

Jim Roberts is an experienced leader of startup communities in Charlotte, Asheville, Durham and now Wilmington. Jim has been having startup events in Wilmington since leaving the university in March. Jim was on the selection committee for the CED Tech Venture Conference, on the committee for NCTA Tech Awards and a reviewer for NC IDEA grants. The next startup event is September 24th with Justin Miller of WedPics, Jake Finkelstein of MethodSavvy, Jamie Mottram of For the Win, the USA Today Sports site and Josh Harcus of Huify, who helped with the campaign to grow the NextGlass app to #1 app in Apple Store at launch.

RSVP here for the next Coastal Corridor event in Wilmington at Ironclad Brewery on September 24