WILMINGTON – By nature, an ecosystem is always evolving. With some new sources of fuel for growth, Wilmington is making additions to our startup ecosystem at a faster pace than a simple explanation of evolution.

With the hard work that has been done in Wilmington since 2013, we see the data from the coast that is adding to the impressive output of Raleigh / Durham and Charlotte to move North Carolina up the national and international rankings.

If you have not heard, Wilmington is now ranked the third best ecosystem in North Carolina by Startup Genome and was recently named the 34th best ecosystem in the WORLD by StartupBlink. And a recent Millen Index report stated Wilmington was performing better than the much larger cities of CHARLOTTE and Charleston, South Carolina. And you KNOW I LOVED that headline.

If you doubt this, our February event had 148 people registered to hear from part time beach resident David Gardner of Cofounders Capital and one of his portfolio clients, Charles Davis of EasyVote Solutions. Keep in mind, this was February at the beach, the slowest time of the year.

Jim Roberts

We partnered with our colleagues in the Wilmington Coalition to create a new web site to inform new entrepreneurs at the coast about all of the resources available to help small business owners. https://wilmingtonbusinessresources.com/

We need to thank NC IDEA and the Ecosystem grants for the support of our programs that make this progress possible.

April Showers, May Flowers

Our April event is taking a look at tough situations that have been swept under the rug in Wilmington for far too long. And the WALE Angel Network is trying to be part of the solution in addition to the programming from the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington. (NEW)

Due to a former DuPont plant in Fayetteville and other sources, the Cape Fear River is polluted with PFAS Chemicals that make the drinking water a problem. An elementary school in Brunswick county was just alerted that they have the worst drinking water in the country.

Also due to a high number of factors, Wilmington also has a terrible opioid drug crisis. Reports say as much as 11.6% of working age people may have an opioid problem. The WALE Angel Network is an investor in Wilmington based OpiAid, who has also received help from the First Flight Venture Center to earn a Phase I SBIR grant from NIH worth $276,000 that the state matched with $75,000. OpiAid, using biometric data based algorithms on people participating in rehabilitation clinics, just completed their application for a Phase II SBIR grant.

We are not proud of these problems but very few people are doing much about these serious issues that affect the very quality of life that people move to the coast for.

On April 28th, NEW is bringing three problem solvers to Wilmington for our monthly event for entrepreneurs.

  1. Sue Mecham and her team at NALA Membranes who is developing a new membrane filter to capture the PFAS chemicals and also good for desalination. The WALE Angel Network is an investor in NALA Membranes.
  2. Denis Connaghan and the team at DisposeRx are truly changing the world with their product to safely dispose of unused and expired pills. As much as 40% of drug addiction starts in the family medicine cabinet. WALMART was one of their first clients.
  3. Krista Covey and her team at First Flight Venture Center are supporting Deep Tech / Deep Science startups with facilities, equipment and programming needed to support startups who are improving the world.

If interested in attending or sponsoring the April event in Wilmington, please register here


Structured Programming

As Wilmington is transitioning from a tourism destination to a more balanced innovation economy, this also requires more of the entrepreneurs.

We have recently seen an increase in our ecosystem of entrepreneurs going through family issues such as divorce that are brought on by the increase in stress of growing a scalable startup. We know we should not bring that work stress into the home life.

So instead of hiding those problems under the rug, we found some partners to create a solution. Heather McWhorter of the Wilmington office of the SBTDC and I applied for and won the NC IDEA Ecosystem Grant to find financial resources not available in Wilmington.

This month we will start a Startup EQ emotional intelligence training for Wilmington entrepreneurs so they can learn new communication skills in a peer to peer group. We believe this will lower the stress around the office and improve life at the home of these entrepreneurs.

Tough Love Gets Results

As a sign of progress in the Wilmington entrepreneur ecosystem, more of our startups are being chosen for stage time at huge investor conferences and pitch contests within the region and in other states.

I was so proud of the high number of Wilmington entrepreneurs who participated in the recent CED Venture Connect Conference. Yes, startups like Renaissance Fiber and F3TCH presented on stage but our crowd gave F3TCH an embarrassing standing ovation BEFORE the pitch began. This showed a real sense of community that I have not felt at the coast since 2015.

Before these two startups took the stage, we had a pitch practice event that I have been using since I ran the Asheville ecosystem organization fifteen years ago.

In a small city like Wilmington, you see fellow business people and maybe your mentors all week long at restaurants, gas stations or even at church. So if someone you knew well said your startup baby was ugly, that can be very awkward and creates an uncomfortable situation.

So for our Tough Love investor pitch feedback sessions, we bring in smart and experienced people from out of town like Bill Warner of EntreDot, Ray Antonino of Permits.com and Lauren McCullough, a Durham based business development consultant and former NC IDEA employee, who can give tough love (constructive criticism) and alternative solutions to improve the presentation of the information on the slides used to impress investors.

We are very excited to see how our entrepreneurs compete in the Wild Pitch at the DigSouth Tech Summit when FOUR Wilmington startups will present on stage in May in Charleston, South Carolina. By the way, this is another connection made by NEW as DigSouth founder Stanfield Gray has family like his father who are from Wilmington / Wrightsville Beach.

About the author

Jim R. Roberts has been working for 22 years in North Carolina with entrepreneur support organizations in Charlotte, Asheville, Durham (COIN) and Wilmington. Jim is the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW), WALE Angel Network and Rojo Octo Ecosystem Consulting. Jim also works with the SEEN Network at UNC Pembroke. Follow Jim on Twitter – @redspireusnc and @91omgbiz