Editor’s Note: WRAL TechWire asked Jim R. Roberts, the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) and the WALE Angel Network, to write this post. Roberts is a core reviewer for NC IDEA and the recipient of multiple NC IDEA ECOSYSTEM grants.  Roberts is the founding executive director of the UNCW CIE incubator, and previously worked at the Durham-based Center of Innovation for NanoBiotech (COIN), funded by the NC Biotechnology Center.  He is a former employee of the state of North Carolina, having served in the International Trade Division of the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

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WILMINGTON – On the exact day of the 10th anniversary of the day I was recruited to start, build and grow the formal startup ecosystem of Wilmington NC, we hosted recently the Inaugural Wilmington Investor BUZZ IN at the Beach event. This was our largest capital event as an independent organization since the Inaugural Coastal Connect conference in September 2014.

Jim Roberts addresses the crowd in Wilmington. (Photo courtesy of Jim Roberts)

Without exaggeration, this was not only the culmination of ecosystem building over the last eight years of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW), the last ten years of ecosystem building in Wilmington when I opened the UNCW CIE incubator in 2013 but the whole 23 years of my work in North Carolina to start or build five ecosystem orgs from Charlotte, Asheville, Durham (Nanotech) and two orgs in Wilmington.

Of course, I have studied the success of the mothership at CED in the Raleigh/Durham markets since the Queen of Entrepreneurship in North Carolina, Mrs. Monica Doss. And of course how this ecosystem building work can be done at the casual coast like Charleston, South Carolina. And I studied books from the likes of Richard Florida, Brad Feld (TechStars) and new authors like Chris Heivly, with his new book out today from his Build the Fort series.

Chicken or the Egg – Startups or Capital?

Of course, Wilmington is not unique in that local entrepreneurs complain about the lack of local capital sources. And of course, high net worth individuals are more willing to participate in the high risk of angel investing and venture capital when there are successful examples about local startups returning a good profit to investors.

We are doing EVERYTHING in our power to raise the quality and profile of our Wilmington startups. Examples include working to promote the NC IDEA grants to our entrepreneurs at the coast. We have also worked with friends at First Flight Venture Center on federal SBIR grants. Working to open opportunities like stage time at the CED Venture Connect Conference and the DigSouth Tech Summit in Charleston, South Carolina where two Wilmington startups will present this week. And of course, media coverage helps raise the profile of our entrepreneurs and our city. We hosted a national PBS TV business show “Start Up” recently. They recorded five episodes about local companies and the show was nominated for three Emmy Awards.

But we needed to step up the effort to attract more new sources of capital and new levels of capital for companies at different stages and for different industries. New early stage companies need angel investors, access to grants and clients. More mature companies are looking to exit, maybe with private equity firms. And Life Sciences companies need a different set of relationships with other forms of capital and strategic investors. This is a REAL challenge and can not be tackled by local government or traditional economic development organizations.

Signature Event At the Coast

The time had come for Wilmington to have a signature event like a VentureConnect in the Triangle or DigSouth in Charleston, SC. But NEW is a one man independent non-profit that receives no city, county or state funding so this big of an event was a heavy lift if it was going to be done right.

One of my WALE Angel Network members told me one of his former colleagues had started a new venture capital fund in Boston and this new investor wanted an introduction to the North Carolina startup ecosystem as a way to find new deal flow. Of course, my first communication was to the biggest players at CED but on second thought, why should they have all the fun?

I chose to create a new event for Wilmington where these investors could visit our ecosystem with the promise of meeting new investors to help them raise new funds for their portfolio companies since the change of temperature in the national economy. We invited VC firms from Boston, Tennessee, Charleston and Raleigh to a reverse pitch along with local Canapi Ventures.

Sure, the idea of an “Investor Fly In” event is not new to North Carolina or even to the beach as Live Oak Bank hosts an annual Fintech at the Beach event but it is a very private event and invite only. An Investor Fly In event is just as it sounds, you invite a small group of investors to your city so they can experience what you are building, have some fun in your city and they get a peak into presentations by the local startup entrepreneurs. Not quite a full blown venture capital conference but a more intimate meeting of fellow investors.

As I have been working in the North Carolina ecosystem for 23 years, I have befriended some venture capital and angel investors across the state. I seemed to have invited all of them to our April event at the beach and most of them accepted a chance to visit their lonely beach house at the break of the Spring weather. It was a smart decision to host our Investor event during the annual Azalea Festival and the infamous Garden Party, the Derby like party without the horses but maybe double the bourbon. We welcomed 53 investors who confirmed to hear five reverse pitches from new investors and heard six local startup presentations.

The crowd is BUZZING at Wilmington event. (Photo courtesy of Jim Roberts)

What is NEW at the Coast That Demanded This Kind of Attention?

When building a new startup ecosystem, one of the MAJOR goals is to have multiple successful exits as scaling startups return profits to the early stage investors that took a risk on local entrepreneurs. Of course, Raleigh and cities like Charleston accomplished this long ago. In the case of Charleston, their ecosystem achieved results with exits from companies like BenefitFocus and Blackbaud.

Well Wilmington had three recent exits with a variety of inputs and level of activity with the local ecosystem organizations. nCino, UnTappd and PlayerSpace all had exits in a similar timeframe.

The KING of exits is of course, nCino. While it started as a software spinout of Live Oak Bank, nCino took a more traditional path as a SAAS product for FinTech and was able to raise funds from the biggest names in venture capital with Salesforce and Bessemer Capital, never before achieved from the coast of North Carolina. Very few local angel investors got in on the “Friends and Family” round but they have all been smiling widely ever since.

But now, some of the founders of nCino, some of the executives and employees of nCino and Live Oak Bank have made the leap to take that knowledge gained and become entrepreneurs within the local ecosystem without the safety net of the mothership of the branches of the Live Oak Family. (Keep in mind, there is another Live Oak Bank / nCino family member called Apiture which raised a $30 million round recently and has over 300 employees.)

The two new startups are called Raleon and Ohanafy Software. Raleon.io is a Web 3 marketing firm started by one of the very first founders of nCino. Raleon is using blockchain to encourage a more personalized purchasing experience and drive sales and scale for their clients.

Ohanafy Software is a CRM solution that includes supply chain solutions for growing breweries and distilleries. This company has achieved 20 new clients within a year of starting and has four open jobs as they continue to grow. They will be presenting this week at DigSouth Tech Summit in Charleston. They were recently announced as one of the Coastal Entrepreneur of the Year Award winners to be given out at the annual ceremony on May 31st.

Sorry, Did I Bury the Lead?

One of the benefits of getting older is that I have seen many great entrepreneurs on their startup journey and I have learned from them.

I remember when Scot Wingo was starting / growing ChannelAdvisor and an even AuctionRover when he was a younger entrepreneur presenting at the CED venture capital conferences and a vivid memory the year the event was held at the Washington Duke Inn.

Of course, Scot is now seen as the wise Jedi with three successful exits and a recent $30 million raise for Spiffy which has a Wilmington location. Scot also has the venture capital world talking with the success of the Triangle Tweener Fund and was recently named the 2nd most active investor in the USA. We invited Wrightsville Beach native David Jones of Bull City Venture Partners to introduce Scot on stage due to their relationship.

So while most “Investor Fly In” events are investor only and usually private invite only events, we decided to open the doors after the reverse pitches from investors and the local startup presentations. 185 people crammed into the Ironclad Brewery to hear from Scot and his VERY famous, “12 insights about the challenges of scaling a startup” presentation that was given at the Startup Summit. This presentation was like a 90 minute MBA for future knowledge when facing growth challenges in a startup. And the attendees got to network with the 53 investors.

Yes, that is right 185 people, who while drinking delicious local beer, were so quiet you could hear a pin drop. See we now have the attention of the entrepreneurs at the coast. We have proven as an organization, that for the first time, we have connections to the people with the capital and the resources they need to grow a successful company at the coast.

While we had some unfortunate technical and audio issues, like ALL conferences do even with a paid A/V team of professionals, the event was an overwhelming success. One investor requested follow up communications from ALL presenting startups which would be more difficult in a full venture capital event.

Invitation to Fun and Sunshine, with a Shot of Local Rum

This event grew to twice the goal of having twenty-five investors. We can continue to work with the momentum of the event to achieve twice the impact for the companies so they can create better jobs for the citizens of Wilmington. The coast has always felt isolated from the innovation economy that North Carolina has enjoyed since the creation of the Research Triangle Park that received funding from across the state.

Funny how people from across the state (and beyond) were eager to participate in our ecosystem when they were actually invited to the coast instead of the coastal people complaining about being left out. We even shared the warmth of the Spring sunshine and a few cold adult beverages with our new friends who looked happy not to be stuck in traffic.

(And may I suggest you make some friends at the coast so you can experience the Garden Party. My visitors were VERY happy with the generous pours of the End of Days Rum and the beautiful setting for the party. It may have been a record setting day for UBER drivers.)