Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series about the startup ecosystem and technology in Eastern North Carolina.
WILMINGTON — The first thing that comes to most people when they think of Eastern North Carolina is probably going to the beach. But, while Wilmington and the coastal area certainly attract tourists and retirees, in the last five years, it has also evolved a growing startup and technology ecosystem.
The region does have a solid technology base, primarily in the life sciences, with PPD, which evolved from startup to muti-billion dollar company, and a host of other contract research organizations, and the Marine Bio-Technologies Center of Innovation (MBCOI), as well as University marine biology research stations in Morehead City and Cape Fear Community College.
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has offices Greenville and Wilmington, although they’re part of different regional partnerships. Most of the startup activity is in the Southeast around Wilmington and Morehead City, both Port Cities.
The Biotech Center provided initial funding for the MBCOI. It will work with NCEAST Alliance, an economic development group, to help develop the region’s growing life science sector with a recently announced $100,000 state grant. Life science manufacturing operations are largely outside the Southeast, located primarily
Corning, and General Electric, both focused on advanced manufacturing and the “industrial Internet era,” to use GE’s phrase, have been in Wilmington for decades. “The fiber connecting us all comes from Wilmington,” one executive said.
Nevertheless, Wilmington, notes Jim Roberts, “is still a city of 125,000 people with a lot retiring to Wilmington and a lot of very young people, but we’re working on making it more nurturing to Startups.
Roberts, an entrepreneurial evangelist who has sparked economic development throughout the state, was the first director of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) in 2013, has since started the Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE).
He also launched the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW). NEW holds regular monthly meetings at the Ironclad craft brewery in downtown Wilmington, frequently hosting guest speakers from the Triangle (with the next event set for July 27 with 90 people already registered). He’s also working with Bunker Labs.
While Roberts admits the region “Has a long way to go” in continued development of its entrepreneurial sector, he points out that it has achieved national recognition for its business climate. In 2015, Forbes named it second on its list of the 10 best cities to start a business.
Banking startup has impressive stats
The magazine also named Wilmington-based nCino , a Live Oak bank spin-out that sells a cloud-based bank operating system, as one of Forbes’ Most Promising Companies in America in 2015, the only one in NC. That was one of a slew of media and industry awards the startup nabbed.
Others included being named one of the NCTA Software Company of the Year in 2015, Top Company Cultures by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2016, and one of the 2016 Inc. 500 fastest-growing privately-held companies in America, and WRAL Techwire’s 2015 Full Steam Ahead award. The company has raised more than $50 million in backing, has more than 250 employees and 130 bank and credit union clients.
Roberts also points to coverage the Wilmington and East NC region has received in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce publication and other national media, but cautions, “We want it authentic and genuine, not hype. Wilmington still needs to do a better job of telling its story. It’s hard for Wilmington to make noise over the much larger cities of Raleigh and Charlotte.”
On the other hand, he said making connections to the Triangle, Charlotte and even Asheville within the state is important. The area has been more successful at doing that too. Brilliant Sole won an Exit Event contest March Tech Madness, and participated in the startup showcase at the NCTA annual event.
The many business people who retire or move to the region, come with strong technology credentials, such as Tom Looney, a co-founder of Seahawk Innovation in 2013, which combines funding, consulting and M&A. Looney’s experience includes stints at Oracle Corp, NeXT (Apple), Active Software (Software AG) and NextChannel Partners (Microsoft).
Cucalorus Connect adds business to film and theater event
Looney is chair of the 2017 Cucalorus Connect event in Wilmington, a five-day business conference that includes a separate film and theater festival. It was originally just a film festival, but making movies and entrepreneurship have much in common. You have to start a company, raise money, and spend wisely.. If you’re wondering where that name Cucalorus comes from, it’s a term for a cinema lighting device used by early Hollywood directors such as Joseph Von Sternberg to give stars such as Marlene Dietrich a mysterious look.
The Cucalorus version of Connect evolved from the Carolina Connect conference Roberts started in Asheville then revived as Coastal Connect in September 2014. It merged with the Cucalorus film festival in 2015.
Roberts said one of his goals is to work with startups to help get them ready for investments from other local groups. Those include the Wilmington Investor Network (WIN).
Other elements of the buzzing entrepreneurial network evolving in the region include Castle Branch’s Tek Mountain co-working space, and Andrew Williams’ Elite Innovations product development company, which we’ll cover in more detail. Also coming, Tom Looney on Cucalorus Connect. We’ll tell you about the innovative startups coming out of marine biotech on the coast.