Throughout the journey that’s led Diane Durance to her new role as director of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), connectivity has always been her mission. 

From starting her own telecommunications engineering firm to leading a nonprofit that supports tech ventures throughout Michigan, Durance understands entrepreneurship as both founder and collaborator, and thus the need for continual symbiosis between those spheres. 
Hired by the CIE in June 2016, Durance’s greatest challenge will be to translate her abilities to a Wilmington startup scene that is both promising yet fragmented. She’ll start by luring a national aquaculture innovation event to Wilmington in 2017.
The beach town is more than just a pretty place to start a business, as local aquaculture lends itself to the marine biotech research that’s become a cornerstone for UNCW. Along with the likes of startups Live Oak/nCino and Next Glass and startup campus tekMountain, the university has substantially helped to grow Wilmington’s mini-tech scene over the past five years. 
Where the Triangle has enough startup density to provide highly-focused efforts for different growth stages, Durance believes Wilmington’s current reality is still fetal enough to require a more company-specific approach. 
But this struggle to turn so many moving parts into a functional whole pretty much sums up Durance’s career. 

Durance as Entrepreneur 

When the Bell System breakup occurred in the early 1980s, long distance telecom became highly competitive, and that’s when Durance started her first of three companies—Lexicom, Inc., a Dallas-based telecom engineering firm that specialized in designing networks for long-distance phone companies. 
Because of AT&T’s prior monopoly, only its “Long Lines” employees knew how to design these networks. Prior to the Bell breakup, there weren’t any college programs teaching the discipline either. Lexicom provided these services to fledgling companies in the suddenly hot market. 
After high-capacity fiber networks were deployed throughout the US in the late ‘80s, and long-distance telecom became cheap, Durance shifted her focus. Now second-tier providers were having trouble selling services to large corporate customers who preferred name brand providers. So, in Ann Arbor in 1990, Durance developed Lexicom Publishing Group, Inc., a syndicated marketing communications magazine for telecom companies of all types to show potential clients that their product reliability and technical services were comparable to big name competitors. 
When publishing shifted online, rather than undertake a risky business model overhaul, Durance jumped industries in 2000 and started a residential remodeling business, HomeRun Services, Inc., in the Ann Arbor area. She employed a fleet of workers capable of HVAC to electrical and plumbing work, all operating under the same group of licensed contractors who could pull the necessary permits—a sort of one-stop shop for anyone along the spectrum of home repair needs. 

Durance as Facilitator 

Never straying too far from the tech world, Durance in 2004 began a 12-year stint as president of three consecutive nonprofits. Beginning at Ann Arbor IT Zone, an organization dedicated to integrating and expanding the city’s IT community, she helped to build a community of students and faculty who were spinning companies out of the local universities. 
Joining Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest (GLEQ) in 2008, she expanded these efforts to Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Once GLEQ merged with the Small Business Foundation of Michigan in 2014 and became MiQuest, Durance’s scope broadened to the entire state of Michigan as an entrepreneurial ecosystem. 
During her time in Michigan’s nonprofit sector, Durance built a database of 14,000 people that were either entrepreneurs or involved in support organizations. Her strategy was always the same—each month, disseminate information to universities and around the state about opportunities related to business competitions, grants or other funding options. 
Durance’s entrepreneurial sympathies kept her focused on building fundamentals. One of her first moves at the Ann Arbor IT Zone was to hold an open house where local entrepreneurs could meet with local representatives of the Small Business Development Center, the Small Business Administration, SCORE and the Chamber of Commerce. 

Becoming the CIE Director 

Durance’s connection to Wilmington began five years ago when she and her daughter toured UNCW during a college search. 
Though her daughter eventually chose to major in marine science at the University of Tampa, Durance was impressed by UNCW’s marine and life sciences programs. She also began a heavy interest in aquaculture and sustainable fisheries, two important issues for both coastal Carolina and Michigan, where Durance still resided. 
In 2013, Durance submitted a business plan at Fish 2.0, a global business competition held at Stanford that connects seafood businesses and investors to sustainable industry. Her plan involved an indoor recirculating aquaculture for smaller-sized family farms while providing a means for farmers to outsource all harvesting and processing to a single company. 
“There’s a lot of poverty on rural farms in Michigan, more than Flint or Detroit,” Durance says. “We wanted to figure out how farmers that needed more land could increase their revenue while just focusing on growing the fish.” 
It was this aquaculture expertise, along with Durance’s overall background, that led UNCW to hire her as the new CIE director last June. 
Started as a business school program in 2009, the CIE hired Jim Roberts as its first director in April 2013, then officially opened its doors as a co-working space and entrepreneur support center in September that same year. During Roberts’ time, Next Glass, a wine and beer-rating app company, and mimijumi, a baby bottle maker, were two prominent startups with memberships at the CIE. 
When Roberts left in March 2015, Chuck Whitlock was appointed interim director. At the time, the university was also seeking a permanent chancellor, so the search committee for CIE Director decided to postpone its decision by more than a year, when Durance tripped their radar. 
In just over three years, the CIE has been home to 65 entrepreneurial endeavors. 

2017 and Beyond 

Because some programs had already been in place prior to Durance’s hiring, the last six months have served as an acclimation period as she makes headway into the university and Wilmington community at large. But she and the CIE have big plans for 2017, one of which brings Durance’s experience full-circle. 
“Diane’s first big initiative is bringing Fish 2.0 to Wilmington,” says Dr. Ron Vetter, associate provost of research and dean of the graduate school. With the CIE as one of its sponsors, the regional stage of the global competition will host nine states from the southeast U.S., from Louisiana all the way to Virginia. The winner will then travel to Stanford to compete in the finals. 
Vetter would also like to see the CIE continue to build itself as a gateway for the university. 
“We’ve got the intellectual capital—if someone needs an app built, or code written, we can connect them with faculty and student expertise—and often it’s free,” he says.
Durance echoes this, as she hopes to foster the same sort of spin-off activity she oversaw in Michigan. 
“At the CIE, we have some really great companies with different needs,” Durance says. “But we don’t have enough volume to do cohort-based programs. To develop a pipeline of a lot of people proposing and honing ideas that could become companies, we need more early activity.”