UNCW entrepreneur incubator marks anniversary


StarNews of Wilmington

It was an entrepreneur's dream. Some of Wilmington's top employers gathered at the Terraces on Sir Tyler, looking for solutions to vexing problems - solutions that they would be willing to pay for.

The so-called "Who has my aspirin?" event - aimed at linking entrepreneurs with major corporations here - was a big success, said Jim Roberts, executive director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The center sponsored the event.

Bringing together the likes of PPD, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Castle Branch was no easy task, Roberts said. So, the event built a lot of credibility for the center, which is opening doors that might have been shut previously to budding businesspeople.

Ready to celebrate its first anniversary Sept. 5, the center was formed to raise the profile of the business start-up community in Wilmington, Roberts said, and to act as a connector - of businesses to mentors, to investors and to each other.

It celebrates the birthday Sept. 4 with its Coastal Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference at the Coastline Convention Center.

The highlight will be an address by Hugh Forrest, founding executive director of the South by Southwest Interactive Conference. Twitter and Four Square launched at the conference.

The event offers more than 50 other speakers, investors and panelists. Landing Forrest is another accomplishment for Roberts and the center. He says he's been working for 14 years to bring Forrest to North Carolina.

There are more milestones in the center's first year.

"Twenty-one companies now have their offices in CIE or in the co-working space," Roberts said. "We have helped many more companies that are independent of the CIE facility tenants," explaining that the center has one to four events for entrepreneurs per month.

Those companies include NextGlass, an award-winning start-up at the center that now employs 17 people. Roberts holds up the company - which is developing an app that delivers personalized wine and beer recommendations - as emblematic of the success of start-ups in Wilmington.

NextGlass is one of two Wilmington companies chosen to present at this year's Council for Entrepreneurial Development Tech Conference Sept. 16 and 17 in Raleigh. The other is Wilmington-based nCino, a banking operations software company that grew out of Live Oak Bank.

They were two of only 18 companies in the state picked to present at the conference and, with the exception of a firm from Greensboro, the only companies outside Raleigh-Durham, Roberts points out.

"We now have five companies that are chosen to be in the biggest venture capital and entrepreneur conference in the South," he said as he sat in a conference room at the center, which is housed in an unassuming strip shopping center on South College Road just south of the UNCW campus. The three others - Wilmington's EasyVote, Indigru and WaterPlayUSA - were picked to have a booth to talk to investors and corporate partners.

When Roberts was hired, the conversation was mostly around raising the profile of the start-up community in Wilmington, he said.

"It was reversing the brain drain to keep and maybe bring back the best and brightest that had maybe moved away, and then to achieve the second-best place for start-ups in North Carolina to be an entrepreneur," he said.

"If Raleigh-Durham has three tier one research universities, and they have a 30-year head start in building an entrepreneurial community, then being the second-best city in the 10th biggest state in the country is an acceptable goal."

For Roberts, the center is his fourth entrepreneurship council in North Carolina, and his connections have played a role in the center's role of boosting Wilmington's start-ups

"There's a group of investors that meet from time to time every month at a restaurant. And they invited me to speak," Roberts said. "And at the very last minute I asked if I could bring NextGlass along.

"And it turns out that 12 people who were at the dinner actually invested in them," he said.

"We're trying to make more of those connections happen," he said. "I think things are happening faster than they were before (CIE) existed."

Roberts hopes to add to the CIE's success in year No. 2.

Roberts has his goals, including expanding the event space at the center, which was crammed recently for a session on the beer brewing business.

"We would love to knock down a wall and expand that space," he said. "We own the building, so we could."

Roberts is also planning to add a three-month boot camp for entrepreneurs where experienced entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers and executives teach the basics of launching a new company.

"I'm pretty proud of what we have accomplished," Roberts said. "We are grateful for the support the community has given us, and we're trying to make things happen . and really build a buzz outside of Wilmington that this is a place where great companies can set started, and you can have a beautiful place to live."

Information from: The StarNews, http://starnewsonline.com

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