Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of reports about the growing impact the technology ecosystem is having across eastern North Carolina.

WILMINGTON — Back in 2013 when Jim Roberts cranked up the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), “There was a pent-up demand from entrepreneurs for it and he got it off to a good start,” says Diane Durance, current director. Since then, it has racked up a significant number of accomplishments.

Durance, who came to a href=”external_link-1″}}CIE after 12 years of leading, coaching and mentoring startup technology ventures and entrepreneurial support organizations in Michigan, says the biggest difference between Ann Arbor and Wilmington is that the University of Michigan is four times the size of UCW. Nevertheless, she says, “Wilmington has an active entrepreneurial ecosystem. A lot of individuals want to start businesses. It’s pretty robust.”

The strategic plan at CIE, she tells WRAL TechWire, is to “Focus on areas where the community has strength, interest, and university expertise.” Those include marine sciences, education technology, and UNCW’s College of Health and Human Services, which includes nursing.

“A lot of good business ideas and opportunities come out of those fields from people with hands-on experience who are engaged in their practice,” Durance says.

In an area such as nursing, that might include “coming up with inventive ways to handle the challenges they face, such as ways of lifting body weight.”

Ed-tech among regional clusters

In ed tech, it includes ventures to help students perform better. “We have a strong relationship with Castle Branch and Tek Mountain,” Durance notes.

Castle Branch, a 400-employee company, does pre-employment background checks and compliance management to academic institutions and for professions such as nursing. It created Tek Mountain, a co-working and mentoring space in part to tap into innovative technologies into its parent company. It works with Nursing and allied health programs and major U.S. hospital associations.

Among other things, Durance says, “They helped support two of our ed-tech entrepreneurs attend an ed-tech conference in New York City.”

One ed-tech startup in Wilmington includes UniSpire, created by a retired education professor who is working on software to help K-12 students with writing skills. It has a test system operating.

Durance says the CIE also takes advantage of Wilmington’s expertise in film and video production. Entrepreneurs and film-makers have much in common. Film-makers must create a company for each production, raise money, budget, and execute.

“It’s one of the things our community is passionate about, film and Media,” Durance says. The CIE media team has done short video profiles of entrepreneurs and “Learn to run their own business doing these projects. They have to bid them, create a timeline, do the production. We did 27 different projects last semester. They work with entrepreneurs to tell their story.”

Cucalorus Connect adds business conference

That all ties into the 5-day event a href=”external_link-2″}}Cucalorus Connect.

Cucalorus Connect in November each year in Wilmington. Originally just a film festival, it now includes a two-day business conference. It evolved from a Connect conference Jim Roberts originally created in Western NC.

Each year, Cucalorus Connect matches 10 entrepreneurs with 10 film-makers who have 4 days to create a video. “It’s a great opportunity for the entrepreneurs and the film-makers,” Durance says.

In addition, she notes, “There are a lot of new developments such as developing virtual reality visuals for the gaming industry, learning, and other commercial things. It isn’t just docs and entertainment. People want content on video.”

The program has a focus on corporate needs. “Who reads instruction manuals? You go to the video. More and more it’s the medium people want.” With a business venture, they can do passion projects such a documentary unlikely to make money on the side, she points out.

Bringing back oyster production

Marine science and technology is another major area of interest on the coast. Durance and the CIE work closely with the Marine Bio-technology Center for Innovation (MBCO)I, created by the NC Biotechnology Center.

One primary mission in that sphere is helping the state develop sustainable aquaculture, particularly developing better methods for oyster production, where NC once excelled but has fallen behind. “We’re both interested in that,” Durance said.

Some of the interesting startups CIE has worked with include:

Lapidus Solutions, which has developed A.I. software that helps insurance companies assess life insurance risk from facial analysis of a person’s photograph, has received national recognition. “They’re superstars,” says Durance.

SportGate offers a concussion evaluation system developed at CIE via SeaHawk Innovations. It tests if a person’s walk is affected (a concussion changes your gate). It’s being tested at a major Wilmington health provider.

Others include startups focused on detecting fecal matter in water, a game-based app that teaches students how to program; and a test for toxins in seafood.

Among CIE’s accomplishments cited on its web site:

  1. 2016 – SeaTox Research – UNCW researcher receives $1.47M Phase II STTR grant for toxin tests for seafood
  2. Placed in BB&T Discovery Forum Social Entrepreneurship Challenge – UNCW undergrad, Mary Jaskowiak
  3. 2017 – CIE hosts 12-state Fish 2.0 Region in Global Business Competition – local companies in final phases: Carolina Black Sea Bass, Shell Tracker, Shellbond, Atlantic Biotechnology – all have ties to UNCW
  4. Anchor tenant, Seahawk Innovation, testing SportGait with major health care provider; reaches $1M revenue mark with MimiJumi and acquires complementary product company
  5. Tenant Lapetus, closing on second-round funding, progress reported in USA Today
  6. Uni-Spire selected for Groundwork Accelerator for women-owned businesses
  7. CIE alum company, Next Glass reaches 70 employees
  8. 1st Placed NC Tech Madness technology award to Brilliant Sole
  9. LogicBay CEO grows VetToCEO program
  10. 65+ tenants in four years – HealthTech, EdTech, and MarineTech dominant

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