Editor’s note: A sea change is taking place in Wilmington where a thriving, growing startup community is changing the city into more than a vacation and real estate hub. Well-known entrepreneur and investor Paul Sing brought his “Results Junkies Tech Tour” to Wilmington last week, another sign of the change taking place, as veteran entrepreneur support exec Jim Roberts reports. 

WILMINGTON, N.C. – Paul Singh was the original keynote speaker at the 2013 Paradoxos Conference for tech and startups in Durham, the host of an event when Wilmington won a award/grant for top 50 accelerators in the nation at his facility in Washington DC and the opening keynote of the growing DigSouth Conference in Charleston, S.C. He is one of three cofounders of 500 Startups, one of top three accelerators in the world. He is on a current tour of more than 35 cities looking to invest $100,000 to $250,000 in startups in cities outside of Silicon Valley. Since 2009, he has invested in more than 1,500 startups.

He has credibility in the startup world.

When he said from the stage last week that “Wilmington entrepreneurs seem to be asking for permission to grow their startups” or that “there is more going on in Wilmington than the perception of only beach tourism and real estate,” people openly sensed a “Sea Change” in Wilmington even before Hurricane Matthew turned north towards our coast.

When I was the first person in line to talk to Paul after his keynote speech at DigSouth in Charleston in April, I had just heard him talk about the Results Junkies Tech Tour of America and Canada. And I wanted to bring the outsider to Wilmington with the friendly smile and enough optimism not to accept what he had been told about Wilmington but someone who wanted to see for himself what a community had to offer. Paul ,an immigrant born in India but grew up in DC area, was welcomed with his capital connections in our conservative coastal city.

As a “newcomer”, I have been working to build the optimism in the startup community in Wilmington for more than three years. The best way I could think of was to create some outside validation. I have been working very hard to get Wilmington startups participating in statewide conferences and awards events. I have also been working very hard to raise the profile of the region with some outside the region media coverage from Raleigh/Durham, Nashville and a special Forbes article on our young life sciences / medical devices sector.

Early on in 2013/2014, NextGlass won a “Best Emerging Technology” award at the North Carolina Technology Association Awards in Durham in front of over 800 innovators at the annual awards banquet. Wilmington then won a few WRALTechWire Full Steam Awards. Both NextGlass and nCino got stage time at the CED Tech Venture Conference. A Wilmington startup won our first ever NC IDEA grant. Even a Wilmington life sciences startup Surgilum got stage time at the CED Life Sciences Conference. Four out of the six startups in the NCTA Startup Showcase were from Wilmington this summer. Three of the top ten Startups to Watch Award winners next month at NCTA annual awards are from …? You guessed it, the 8th largest city in North Carolina and warm weather tourism destination.

Now there is more validation as some capital is beginning to follow the increased media attention spotlight. Since starting the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington in May of 2015, we have welcomed over 30 regional investors to speak at our monthly events at Ironclad Brewery. Recently my angel investor network , the Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE), made a small investment to finish the third round of a company called Ten8Tech.com. Cloud based software to help police stations be 20% more efficient while handling small crimes where only a report is needed for insurance purposes instead of sending an officer to the scene. A recent addition to the product line and new nationwide partnerships are even more exciting.

Another Wilmington startup called Petrics.com helped us reach a new level of credibility but there is much more work to do. CEO and Founder Ed Hall was one of the first tenants when I ran the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UNCW. He is a military veteran of the Navy, a UNCW graduate, went through our three month Bootcamp for Startups, managed the local Elite Innovations Makerspace and then went full time on his “Internet of Things “ product for multi-pet households. One of our WALE members chose to make an investment. Then among over 230 applicants, Petrics was chosen to be the only non – Triad startup for the new Winston Salem accelerator program and won a $50,000 investment.

But the biggest story has not yet been told as a Wilmington female entrepreneur has struggled for five years to get her medical device for sleeping, snoring and sleep apnea enough funding for a prototype to get to clinical trials. After Polly Harman of Pursuit Enterprises LLC made the effort to attend one of my Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) events, she was introduced around the Triangle innovation resources we had on stage that night. She met Cindy Whitehead (Sprout Pharmaceuticals) through a direct introduction from NEW when I was first in line to meet Cindy at the CED Life Sciences Conference. Cindy’s new investment company Pink Ceiling has just made an investment to get the device through prototype stage.

Yes, I know, none of that matters if these investments don’t add up to an exit event such as an acquisition or an IPO. If nothing else, I believe in these entrepreneurs in Wilmington and sometimes I believe in them before they believe in themselves when they ask for assistance and introductions to capital sources. I am simply a connector of people to available resources they were unaware of. When I introduce these entrepreneurs, their ideas and signs of early progress, the outsider influencers are willing to bring more than their suntan lotion to Wilmington.

We are just beginning to see a return of some of the brainpower that has traditionally left Wilmington after high school and college. During this three day event, we heard from four Wilmington natives on stage who have recently returned to our coast from bigger cities to start their next entrepreneurial venture.

And this brain gain trend is a reason for optimism.

After this recent rude uninvited tourist, Hurricane Matthew, we could use some.

About the author: Jim R. Roberts is a professional connector who has started several entrepreneur support organizations in North Carolina. He is currently the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) and the Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE) in Wilmington, North Carolina. He tweets at @RedSpireUSNC

​Note: Photos of the event appearing with this post were taken by Jim Roberts.