Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of WRAL TechWire special reports about the emerging tech economy across eastern North Carolina.

WILMINGTON — Wilmington’s tekMountain startup accelerator and co-working space is “like Tech Stars without the funding component,” says Sean Ahlum, director.

TekMountain, a subsidiary of employment screening and compliance company Castle Branch, is a 24,000 square foot facility with 36 startups and about 200 co-workers using the space. Co-workers, Ahlum says, “range from a single entrepreneur to those working for larger companies such as SAS, IBM and Cisco.”

Ahlum says the space was intentionally designed to be “Super collaborative with offices along the edge, and built-in collision points, a brewery, coffee bars, and large stand-up work spaces, places where people can collide and have conversations and share ideas.”

The rise of eastern NC: The series

  • Allan Maurer’s overview of tech growth across eastern North Carolina
  • A look at Wilmington’s Elite Innovations

Ahlum, also director of business development for 400-employee Castle Branch, has been director of Tek Mountain since October 2014. He says tekMountain seeks startups with innovative ideas that help change the markets Castle Branch serves.

“Part of my job is corporate discovery, to find people doing things that help in the three areas.” Those are healthcare IT, medical technology, and educational technology. Castle Branch, he explains, “Works with the vast majority of nursing and allied health programs and major hospital associations throughout the U.S.”

Area has a technology base

Eastern NC, Ahlum says, needs to shift to a knowledge-based economy and away from the the goods and services commodidized markets. “We need to be more like the Triangle, Austin, or St. Louis. Wilmington has relied on non-technology industries for far too long – real estate, retirement, tourism, vacation markets. They’re not enough to sustain the kind of growth Brunswick County is experiencing.

“We need an environment where a lot of rapidly scaling entrepreneurial companies can be created.”

The area already has a foundation for a knowledge-based economy, he notes, citing its life sciences, medical technology, marine biotechnology, contract research organizations, and business and financial services such as those provide by Live Oak bank and its spin-out nCino.

Not only that, Ahlum says, “We see advanced manufacturing and the digital industrial sector starting. Corning, which produces the world’s fiber optics is right down the road. We have GE and Duke Power.”

TekMountain was created to help. In addition to “reasonably priced co-working and office space,” tekMountain has 20 specific mentors who include entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and those with expertise in law and accounting.

“We provide programs very specifically designed to get the entrepreneur involved in learning ways to grow and scale their business,” says Ahlum.

Another benefit tekMountain offers is reciprocity deals with HQ Raleigh and HQ Charlotte so that its residents can also work in those spaces when in the respective cities. It also participates in events with other accelerators in DC and New York City.

Petrics CEO cites East NC benefits

One of its resident startups, Petrics, which sources say is about to close a new funding deal, plans both a free app to help pet owners receive diet and nutrition recommendations personalized to their pet’s needs in seconds and a feeding system for people with multiple pets.

Edward Hall, Petrics CEO, says, “Working on tech in the Southeast definitely provides some benefits. The cost of living and office expenditures are much lower than that of traditional tech hubs like Palo Alto. This allows startups to be able to operate with much lower capital needs.

”For instance, you can build a strong tech team affordably with the reduced cost of living. If you are able to identify or train good talent, have a positive corporate culture, onboarding process, and management team, then your tech talent can truly shine at very affordable rates compared to other traditional tech hubs.

“There is also a lot of enthusiasm and support in the Southeast for tech companies. Many organizations are willing to help promote tech brands, tell their stories, and provide valuable resource and networking opportunities such as Bunker Labs, NEW, tekMountain, CIE, Startup Grind, New Ventures Accelerator, Flywheel, and the SBTDC.”

While many in the region complain that funding remains elusive, Ahlum says, “Smart money always finds good ideas. Money will always travel. If a good idea is in Wichita, Kansas, money will find it. We need to stop worrying about how much money is available to us and create really good products and services and pitch them in a way that convinces venture capitalists to invest.”

New York City-base Flatiron Law Group, which opened offices in the Raleigh in April, plans to bring four venture capitalists to Wilmington in September. The VCs will represent firms that invest in different stages of startups, from early stage through later rounds.

Ahlum says tekMountain also sent a representative on the recently completed Innovate NC tour of five cities (Wilmington, Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville, and Wilson) and “We extended our network thoughout the state.”