Editor’s note: This is the second of a series on the startup ecosystem and technology in Eastern NC.
WILMINGTON — Andrew Williams, founder and CEO of Wilmington-based Elite Innovations one of the lynch-pins of the evolving startup ecosystem in the Wilmington area, has been inventing things since he was in 4th grade.
On the Elite Innovations’ web site, he writes: “Most say I’m an idea guy and I can’t argue with that.” In 4th grade, he won an invention convention with a product called “Blade Boots,” which converted roller blades into shoes so users could walk with them on.
A former Marine, he developed a boot-lacing system while in Afghanistan called “TacLace,” which they took to market in 2013.
Elite Innovations, itself a startup, Williams tells WRAL Techwire, “is a product development company. We provide full service from design to prototype to a manufacturing source.”
The company, he said, has been growing by those proverbial leaps and bounds, 300 percent last year and possibly double that this year.
Currently, he said, products in development include those in the Internet of Things space, plastics, and textiles. “We’re just slammed,” he said. “We have five projects underway now. Some should be in production in the next couple of months.”
Funding still a problem
Some are technology products, such as a tourniquet designed by a former Special Forces medic that stops bleeding when someone loses a limb up to the pelvis, a troublesome problem. “It’s a very disruptive device in that space,” Williams said.
Another product is called Easy Denture, in development for more than two years. It’s a denture that fits anyone’s mouth.
A less tech-oriented product is Tailgater – a flat-bed extender.
Williams said he definitely sees the startup ecosystem in Wilmington and Southeaster NC gaining traction. Startups are transitioning to “Actual credible ventures. Teams are raising a little money.” Still, he admits, “Reliable investment is still a problem.”
“We do have a few hubs. Castle Branch’s Tek Mountain, the Marine Bio-Technology Center for Innovation (which we discuss in a coming article), which is a cool facility.
Increase in startups
He predicts, however, that “Bigger things are coming out of Wilmington in the next five years. Some of it is already happening. The two-day Cucalorus Connect(part of a five-day film and theater festival that preceded the business component in Wilmington in November), has great keynote speakers, roundtable discussions, a virtual reality theater, startup showcases and Innovate Her, a women-owned business pitch competition.”
Regarding the Cucalorus Conference, which, as a film festival, was named a major attraction by Time Magazine, he notes, “There are a lot of parallels between film-maker and entrepreneurs.” Both have to start companies, raise funds, and execute on a plan.
“Most of the troubles film-makers face are the same as those of entrepreneurs,” Williams said.
In the last three years, he added, “We’ve seen an increase in startups with rock star ideas and reputable teams.” He mentioned nCino, the Live Oak Bank spinout that raised significant capital and has hundreds of employees. “It’s Saleforce for banks, basically,” Williams explains.
Live Oak Bank itself came up with an innovative idea. It found 11 industries or clients who are good at paying back loans and loans just to them.
There is an ecosystem
Elite Innovations has eight employees and a handful of contractors specific to certain projects. It’s bootstrapped, funded by the founders.
As far as the region is concerned, Williams suggests, “Nothing is going to happen until we get on or two really big success stories under our belt. If one of these reputable startups gets a break in the next 12 months or so, we’ll be on investors’ radar.
Williams said he isn’t limiting fund-raising to North Carolina. “We’re heading up to Richmond and other places to raise money.”
Money may be a problem, but Williams said, “There is an ecosystem. We have the innovators, founders, and municipal support. The city is behind us. It may not b e throwing as many resources as we might like into it. But we’re connecting different entities and trying to move people along. People here are supporting entrepreneurship. The thing missing is funding. We don’t have a thousand success stories. It’s our job to make it happen.”
He notes that the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UCW) is an “Anchor for research and initiating innovation.”
He singled out Jim Roberts, who was instrumental in adding the Connect business conference to the Cucalorus film and theater festival, and has also been instrumental in starting the Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE), among other entrepreneurial support ventures.
“I see a future,” Williams said, “with three or four startups on the verge of a breakthrough, us included. Once that happens, the last wicket of funding may change for us. You have to put your head down and get it done. It’s not always fun or easy.”