Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire contributor Dr. Sarah Glova is a globally recognized speaker, successful entrepreneur, university instructor, and business consultant. A seasoned educator and entrepreneur, Sarah is CEO of the award-winning digital media firm, Reify Media. With a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and a Master of Science in Technical Communication, she is dedicated to cultivating forward-thinking work environments.

This special report on the state of startups in Wilmington includes three stories, all cross-linked. 


WILMINGTON – There’s a growing “family tree” of tech startups on the coast—branched from Live Oak Bank.

I visited the Port City earlier this month to speak at an event for the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW), and I was struck by the size of the tech-startup family tree on the coast.

In the Triangle, the tech startup ecosystem has strong “family tree” branches thanks to big companies like IBM, Citrix, and of course, Red Hat. We tell the stories of Raleigh-area tech companies like Docker and Platform9 that originated as spin-off projects at Red Hat, or we share trivia about former Red Hatters turned tech-startup ecosystem developers like Joe Colopy (co-founder of Bronto Software and now General Manager of Jurassic Capital), Jason Caplain (manager of Bull City Venture Partners), and many more…

As we’ve watched these Triangle branches grow into support for new tech startups, we’ve seen a kind of exit-fueled flywheel effect that catalyzes startup growth. Like how BCVP supports Spiffy, Levitate, and GreenPlaces, or how Bill Spruill, co-founder and CEO of Raleigh-based Global Data Consortium, shared his $300 million exit with CED and NC State startups.

Is Wilmington now ready to claim its own tech startup flywheel—is this ecosystem beyond seeds and into its roots era?

Sarah Glova

Startup branches from Live Oak Bank

Wilmington-based Live Oak Bank has been named the most active SBA lender for five years in a row, providing fertile ground for Wilmington-based startups.

I spoke with Tim McLoughlin, Managing Partner at Cofounders Capital, which is a recently added sponsor of NEW. McLoughlin told me that Live Oak’s presence gives the tech startup ecosystem in Wilmington “the potential to grow faster” than the Triangle ecosystem did.

“I think that you have a very forward-looking, tech-first bank in Live Oak,” said McLoughlin.

In addition to its active lending, cloud-based Live Oak has invested in and helped launch several fintech companies headquartered or doing business in Wilmington, including Apiture, Telios, and nCino, creating what Wilmington Business Journal called the “Live Oak Multiverse.”

The bank manages Live Oak Ventures and owns the fintech venture firm Canapi Ventures, which has raised more than $545M.

“And so I think that having a bank like that, that is focused on entrepreneurs, small businesses, and helping them grow and scale, is going to be great,” said McLoughlin. “That’s going to lead to them being more progressive on investing in earlier stage companies, spinning out a fund, doing like what they did with Canapi, which provides real capital and then quicker and bigger returns for some companies and some people, that can then turn back around and invest.”

Branches, branches and more branches stemming from Live Oak, nCino

‘Most exciting time’

Jim Roberts, founder of NEW and the Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE), told me that now is “the most exciting time in the history of startup entrepreneur growth” for Wilmington.

He mentioned the “huge growth and Wall Street success” of nCino, as well as the funded growth of Apiture—but he also pointed to some examples outside of the fintech space, like the successful exit of PlayerSpace and the “family” of companies by George Taylor, as examples of what Roberts calls the “bootstrap startup community” in Wilmington.

[Taylor is a serial entrepreneur based in Wilmington; he was a co-founder and former chairman of Untappd, which eventually exited to private equity, the founder of Wilmington-based TRU Colors brewery, which closed in September 2022, and is now Board Chairman of National Speed automotive tuning shops.]

Roberts also mentioned last year’s StartupBlink and StartupGenome rankings, which named Wilmington a top entrepreneurial ecosystem.

[StartupGenome last year ranked Wilmington as the number one startup ecosystem in the USA for cities under 300,000 people; but the data may have combined Wilmington, NC startup traction with Wilmington, Delaware, according to the Wilmington Business Journal.]

Tech talent Pipeline in Wilmington

Dr. Karl Ricanek, Jr., Computer Science professor at UNCW and CEO and co-founder of Lapetus Solutions, Inc, spoke with me about the talent pool in Wilmington.

“I think it’s critical for us to get out there and share that there’s plenty of talent here in Wilmington,” said Ricanek. “It is a little challenging. It’s not a, you know, San Francisco, or even Chicago, or Dallas, those are some big ecosystem areas with lots of folks, but we do hold our own here in Wilmington. And it’s growing every day.”

Ricanek is the Director of UNCW’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Identity Sciences (I3S) research center, home of the university’s Face Aging Research Group, which focuses on technology development in machine learning, computer vision, deep learning, embedded systems, and software development.

“We get more and more tech-savvy folks that are in here,” said Ricanek. “The likes of the university systems and community college are pumping out lots of just terrific talent from the development side over to just innovation in general.”

Lapetus, founded in 2015, provides AI- and advanced machine learning-based health intelligence solutions, and Ricanek told me the developers who built “every aspect” of the company’s code base have all been Wilmington-based.

The sprouting of nCino – another Wilmington success with ties to Live Oak

Investor Interest in Wilmington tech

Just last month, Cofounders participated in a $3M funding round for APPROVE, an internal lending network for equipment rentals, alongside Live Oak Ventures.

“Now that we have more portfolio companies, so we have two portfolio companies down there, so we’re visiting Wilmington all the time, to meet with our portfolio and other events,” said McLoughlin. “So there’s gonna be more capital that is going down there and looking at opportunities.”

Gareth Harte, Founder and CEO of Telios, told me that Raleigh-area leaders and investors have been “supportive” of his growth aspirations for Telios and have “shown interest” in the company’s work at various Wilmington events.

“Even if they can’t directly assist, they often connect me with someone in their network who can,” said Harte.

Harte also mentioned the importance of investor interest in the area.

“It’s encouraging to see venture capitalist interest growing in Wilmington, particularly from Raleigh firms,” said Harte. “Continued and expanding investment interest from bigger cities like Miami, NY, and the West Coast would really help boost the area’s profile.”

It’s not the PayPal Mafia—thank goodness

Personally, something that I worry about when we discuss a “family tree” in a startup ecosystem is whether the fruits of those branches will be open to all—or whether it’ll create an insular network that rewards a small group while shutting out others.

A famous example of a “startup family tree” is the “PayPal Mafia”—a group of early employees and founders of PayPal who went on to start or invest in successful companies—that included Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), Peter Thiel (Founders Fund), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Max Levchin (Affirm), and others.

“Their successes are often interconnected,” wrote Erin Griffith for the New York Times in a 2022 article. “Those in the group invest in or join each other’s companies and firms, keeping things, as the mafia says, in the family.”

And according to the article, the “interconnected” nature of the group can lead to a “Bro” culture that’s more insular than collaborative.

So one story that really struck me came from Harte, who told me that the “entrepreneurial spirit” at Live Oak convinced him to take a role at Live Oak in Wilmington over a role with PayPal in Austin.

“Before I landed in Wilmington, I lived in Austin, working in software engineering,” Harte told me in an email. “Just when I was gearing up to join PayPal, Live Oak Bank reached out. They were seeking an engineer for their asset-based lending platform.”

Harte visited and felt “welcomed” by the Live Oak team and the “beautiful surroundings.”

“This warmth, coupled with the company’s genuine care for its employees, convinced me to join them over PayPal,” said Harte.

Live Oak also fostered Harte’s “innovative dreams,” he told me, and helped him to balance his full-time role with his startup work.

“Beyond that, I learned a lot about asset-based lending and managing teams of engineers after I was promoted to become the engineering manager,” said Harte. “One of my key mentors there, Scott Roberts, the bank’s Chief Architect, played a significant role in my journey and still advises me on technical issues at Telios.”

Harte added that the Wilmington founders have “a good support system” that’s “better” than what he saw in Austin.

When I asked Ricanek about the character of the community, he told me that Wilmington’s tech startup ecosystem is open to “all of the businesses and business ideas.”

“I believe, in this community, minority businesses have a great opportunity,” Ricanek said. “And I like that about our community. You go to our events, I mean, you’re gonna have every sort of, everything under the sun there. It would look like a rainbow flag, not from just the perspective of LGBTQ, but just, where people are from, their home country, their diversity of sorts of disciplines, mindset, political slant.”

Ricanek’s startup Lapetus received its Minority Business Enterprise certification from UNCW in 2016, the same year the company was named a “Startup to Watch” by the NC Technology Association (NC TECH).

“There’s a lot of idea sharing and vetting, and everyone just really, sincerely wants to help,” said Ricanek. “And maybe that’s because we are still a small ecosystem. We’re growing, but we’re still small and tight-knit.”

NEW in Wilmington

Ricanek told me that he met his first investor at an event hosted by the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) back in 2014.

“During that event was where I was able to secure the funding that started Lapetus, that was where I met the funder for this,” said Ricanek. “And it was an open, embracing community. We got a chance to pitch and I was able to pitch a bit about what we were doing, or what we were attempting to do, with Lapetus, and it was received extremely well.”

Nathan Snell, who was with nCino for ten years before he started the web3 marketing platform Raleon last year, was one of six Wilmington presenters who pitched at NEW’s investor Buzz event in April. Snell spoke with me about the collaborative nature of the Wilmington community.

“I’ve never felt the tech ecosystem of Wilmington to not be collaborative, so much as not particularly active,” said Snell, who started at Live Oak in 2010. “I believe the next few years will be particularly exciting, and set the stage for years to come as these newer, different companies become more active as they grow.”

Ricanek says the support comes from a wide community in the area.

“One of the things that I find is that, you know, folks do tend to go out of their way to help support you,” said Ricanek. “It’s not just Jim Roberts, but most, most folks in our ecosystem, they will do what they can to help support the local startups.”

NEW is hosting its next Wilmington event on September 13, featuring the NC TECH Association and multiple Wilmington-area founders, including Snell (Raleon), Harte (Telios), and Ricanek (Lapetus). Learn more at newilm.com