RALEIGH — NC IDEA featured some big conversations for day two of their Ecosystem Summit.

Senator Thom Tillis kicked off the day, joining the event via video for an insightful conversation with NC IDEA President and CEO Thom Ruhe. The two discussed a number of economic headlines in their conversation, starting with the recent Tech Hub announcements. While North Carolina won several Strategy Development Grants, the state was notably absent from those that received the tech hub designation.

Tillis isn’t worried, and apparently, he has good reasons.

“I think that you may see in the coming weeks a significant decision being made,” Tillis said on the call. “I can’t really get to it now, [but] I think you’re gonna see North Carolina doing fine in terms of being recognized by federal agencies as a key part of the future of innovation.”

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On that note of positivity, the two moved on to the careful application of incentives for bringing new business to the state vs. meeting the needs of the smaller businesses that don’t qualify for incentives. Senator Tillis emphasized that a lean regulatory and tax burden, plus North Carolina’s core benefits of a strong “university system, infrastructure, and geographic positioning” are motivators for any company to choose the state, big or small.

Elizabeth Dougherty, Eastern Regional Outreach Director for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) followed Senator Tillis with insights on the challenges and values of intellectual property for entrepreneurs. According to Dougherty, North Carolina averages between 6,000 and 7,000 patent applications each year, and a further 11,000 trademark registrations.

“So many other states and regions really should be taking a page out of your playbook,” she said. “My compliments and congratulations to all of you.”

Real Impacts for Rural Communities

The morning offered breakout sessions for entrepreneurs and ecosystem supporters. Moderators Tom Snyder from Riot, and Will McGuire from Incolo.io, facilitated conversations on engaging with the community through events and by identifying and utilizing resources. Katrece Boyd with North Carolina Central University, and Dave Kaiser with the NC Department of Commerce, led sessions on agency support for entrepreneurs, including small business grant programs.

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After lunch, the event pivoted to focus on more rural entrepreneurship and economic development. The afternoon began with a case study of sorts, a panel of Wilmington industry experts and ecosystem developers who shared the journey of Wilmington through groundbreaking startups, research initiatives, and awards for the city’s outsized business success.

Another panel followed with inspiring stories of small communities building economic success. Sara Chester Co-Executive Director at The Industrial Commons in Morganton spoke about the efforts to bring the textile industry back to the area through a focus on collaboration among competitors; a network of “co-opetition.”

Dr. Jerry Edmonds of Vance-Granville Community College and Michael Harris from the East Carolina University College of Business also told their stories of building inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems in more remote and economically challenged areas. Both emphasized the unique stories of each community and the value they bring.

“When you see one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community,” said Edmonds in his remarks. “Each community has its own strengths and weaknesses.”

Good startup news

It was in the midst of this small business bliss that more good news rolled in: three North Carolina cities took the top spots in Lending Tree’s assessment of top cities nationwide for starting a small business. Raleigh retained its spot at number one, with Charlotte and Durham in the second and third spots respectively. NC IDEA’s Ruhe got the news from attendees and text messages well before he had a moment to read the news. But he wasn’t surprised.

“I walked the halls this morning getting coffee, like, oh, I met some really great people,” said Ruhe. “There’s such awesome people doing [the work].”

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And no doubt NC IDEA and the Ecosystem Summit, now in its fifth year have contributed to the development and maturity of the business community in the state.

“I’d go to an event in Asheville or Wilmington and, ‘show of hands, who’s ever heard of NC IDEA,’ like, three hands would go up. Now it’s like two-thirds of a room,” Ruhe said. “I’m at the beach or I’m in the mountains. From a personal perspective that feels good, but from a mission [view], it feels great. Because it means we’re supporting some really important work.”

Ruhe is enthusiastic about the potential for big announcements from Senator Tillis and the federal government, but he’s also focused on the routine cadence of the NC IDEA grant calendar, which announces its SEED funding winners tomorrow on the last day of the conference. The spring cycle of grants starts up again in January. But Ruhe appreciates the effort and value of each new season.

“The secret to [NC IDEA] is to work with competent, qualified staff, adequately funded and resourced, patiently supported, and grind it out,” he said. “Who else does that? Oh, entrepreneurs.”