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Wilmington’s Vibrant And Burgeoning Life Sciences Startup Ecosystem

Forbes Pharma & Healthcare readers will most likely know of Wilmington, North Carolina as the world headquarters of PPD, the global contract research organization founded byFred Eshelman.

But did you know that Forbes ranked Wilmington #2 onThe 10 Best Cities To Start A Business 2015? That’s second only to Boulder, Colorado.

Even within the state of North Carolina–that, somewhat deceptively, is even wider than Colorado and several other western states–the Port City often shows up on “best-kept secret” lists, such as this one for the coastal craft beer industry.

So when Jim R. Roberts, founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEWilm), invited me to moderate a life sciences startup funding panel at their monthly gathering, I jumped at the chance.

Roberts and his sponsors have only been at this for a year but are already drawing 150 to 170 entrepreneurs every month to a local brewery for startup pitches and networking with regional experts. That’s a remarkable success in a city of only 113,000 residents and a three-county metro area of 384,000.

If you’re in the area, tonight’s event (Thursday, June 23) is entitled, Getting Wilmington Startups to Think Bigger, Nationally and Globally. Among tonight’s featured local companies is nCino, a cloud-based banking company that made the Forbes list of America’s Most Promising Companies.

Only in its first year, the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEWilm) draws 150 or more monthly to see startup pitches, engage with investors and network with other startup-minded compatriots. Image Credit: Jim R. Roberts, Founder of NEWilm

Only in its first year, the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEWilm) draws 150 or more monthly to see startup pitches, engage with investors and network with other startup-minded compatriots. Image Credit: Jim R. Roberts, Founder of NEWilm

A self-described connector, Roberts is an enthusiastic, energetic and affable business development expert who has launched two angel investor networks and started or worked in five entrepreneur support organizations across the state. Roberts is also the founder and public face of Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE), a angel network that invests in Wilmington startups. He was originally recruited to the area to serve as director UNC-Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, recognized by the federal Small Business Administration as one of the top 50 business accelerators in the country.

Coastal lifestyle and business acumen

Emerging startup markets that don’t view themselves simply as extensions of Silicon Valley, Boston or San Francisco are essential to the nation’s small business ecosystem, argues Adam Coughlin, Director of Corporate Communications at the internet cloud management company, Dyn. In his guest column for the Forbes Communications Council, Coughlin wrote,

So whether you’re based out of Manchester, New Hampshire (where my company is located) or Charleston, South Carolina, remember that you don’t have to try to be something else. You don’t need to validate where you live by making it out to be something it’s not. If you want to innovate and change the world and grow an amazing company, then you need to stop becoming a “me-too” business and start using your location to your advantage.

Roberts points out that Wilmington has two major attractions– the “something it is”–as a place to start businesses. First is that it offers a highly-sought coastal lifestyle simply not possible in any of the seven larger North Carolina cities. Wilmington sits between the Atlantic Ocean, Intracoastal Waterway and Cape Fear River, just minutes to Wrightsville Beach and other family-friendly coastal hamlets. In contrast, larger technology and financial centers such as Raleigh are two to five hours drive to the coast (two hours longer for Charlotte). People who’ve grown up at the coast and folks like me in the Research Triangle Park tech and biosciences community would love to settle or return to work at the coast.

Second is that Wilmington isn’t just sought by locals: It’s a popular retirement destination for national and international senior level executives, many who share their considerable business expertise locally. The UNC-Wilmington business school established the Cameron Executive Network to make these connections for students Roberts, originally recruited to Wilmington as Director of UNC’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, is working with others to facilitate introductions that encourage entrepreneurs to seek this expertise for advisory and board members.

Innovation and economic development

The influence of location is exemplified by UNCW’s CREST Research Park, a model for interactions between academic research, business and state agencies. The park is the home to MARBIONC (Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina), a public/private partnership for the university that also offers laboratory and office space to small business. Dan Baden, PhD, distinguished professor of marine biotechnology and former director of the UNCW Center of Marine Biology, told me during our two-hour tour that while office space is plentiful anywhere, it’s difficult for startups to gain access to state-of-the-art laboratories and, if they desire, daily interactions with experienced researchers and trainees.

Half of the $30 million in construction funds for the 69,000-square-foot research-to-product building came from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), a U.S. Department of Commerce arm promoting innovation and industrial competitiveness. Beyond providing a home for small business to tap research expertise, postdoctoral research fellows at the park can get training in the business of biotechnology and support to earn their MBA degrees at UNCW. As a former professor, I found this an innovative approach to offer trainees even greater career flexibility and direct exposure to startups.

If you're a small business in need of laboratory space and core research facilities in Wilmington, give director Dan Baden (left) a call. Photo credit: Susan Altobello, PhD, associate professor of marketing at UNC-Pembroke and UNCW adjunct in entrepreneurial management

If you’re a small business in need of laboratory space and core research facilities in Wilmington, give director Dan Baden (left) a call. Photo credit: Susan Altobello, PhD, associate professor of marketing at UNC-Pembroke and UNCW adjunct in entrepreneurial management

The MARBIONC Development Group is a university spinoff that’s now developing two commercial products. Brevenalis an agent derived from algae being investigated to clear the thick mucus that accumulates in the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Escortin is another algae-derived product that repurposes the blood-brain-barrier penetrating action of marine neurotoxins to facilitate the delivery of brain cancer drugs and imaging agents.

The center also maintains 400 species of marine bacteria and 300 strains of marine microalgae for research purposes and production and testing for marine toxins. Unlike bacteria and human cell banks, these cultures must be maintained continuously.

The CREST Research Park is also home to a full-production oyster hatchery to generate seed oysters for growers and the NC Division of Marine Fisheries’ oyster restoration projects. Director and UNCW marine biology professor,Ami Wilbur, PhD, showed me how variable oyster growth can be in a single, supposedly homogeneous population. Oysters of the same age can vary between pinky nail-sized and inches long. Her team selects the largest and fastest-growing oysters to supply the state and six commercial aquaculture companies.

Not just marine startups

The NEWilm event I attended was held in a large, historic 1925 building in downtown Wilmington that’s been lovingly restored into Ironclad Brewery by Ted Couglin (unrelated to Adam). An electrical and computer engineer by training, Ted remains CEO of a northern Virginia venture capitalist firm. But he chose Wilmington for his own investment and is clearly committed to opening his doors to the local startup community. The brewery has a full bar but no kitchen, so patrons are encouraged to bring in their own food or have it delivered. Because the event starts at 4:00 pm and is over around 6:00, many of the attendees tend to have dinner in small groups afterward.

The event launched with three startup presentations:

Tick Rover – A ‘Roomba for Ticks’ is how this robotic tick-killing machine was described by business development team leader and UNCW professor Elizabeth Baker, PhD. The technology was co-developed by Jim Squire, PhD, a Virginia Military Academy professor looking for an alternative to pesticide spraying of his yard after he found disease-carrying ticks on his toddler son. The rover, dubbed Robo-Tic, uses biomimicry by “exhaling” carbon dioxide and an attracting ticks to a pesticide impregnated cloth. You can see an early version of the rover in this 2013 ABC News feature.

Surgilum – Driven by the ideas of local eye surgeon and inventor, Alan Brown, MD, and promoted at the meeting by his wife, Debbie, Surgilum already has one product:RoboMarker, the world’s first self-leveling corneal marker with disposable, preinked sterile tips that reduce time during lens implant procedures.

NeatCAP – A patented noise-reduction device to minimize premature infant stress in neonatal intensive care units.

Federal small business grants an underappreciated resource

The practical offering for entrepreneurs came from Karen LeVert, CEO and Founder of Southeast Tech Inventures (STI). STI partners with investors to accelerate the commercialization of technologies and intellectual property across from medical products and bioengineering to electronics and agriculture (LeVert is also COO of Agriculture Investures, focusing on this sector.)

LeVert is bullish on the federal small grants programs: the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR). While each program has its specific requirements, the funds can range from $150,000 to $1,000,000 and come from required set-asides of most federal agencies with R&D grant budgets. So while folks with my training would be most familiar with National Institutes of Health SBIRs and STTRs, LeVert says that NIH only accounts for 29% of this funding. The majority–53%–comes from the Department of Defense.

LeVert encouraged those in attendance to speak with program directors at the most likely agency for their new technology. Roberts told me that while Wilmington ranks 8th in population in the state, it ranks 24th in the awarding of SBIR grants. LeVert espoused this program because the federal funding still allows entrepreneurs to keep their intellectual property and offers funding with no equity dilution. Moreover, the program essentially provides third-party verification and endorsement that a technology is worthy of feasibility investment.

LeVert also joined the panel discussion I moderated withPreston Linn, PhD, a pillar of the Research Triangle scientific and investor community, and Merrette Moore, MBA, founder and managing director of Lookout Capital, a private equity investment firm, and Rex Health Ventures, one of a growing number of venture firms launched by hospitals and health systems. Moore, who recently moved to Wilmington, strongly argued that the quality and chemistry of the people on a startup team are essential to the development of any technology.

Linn, who remains a professor and industry-academic coordinator in the UNC-NC State Joint Biomedical Engineering Program, holds 15 patents and is currently chief alliance officer for NIRvana Sciences, developers of near-infrared (NIR) dyes for biomedical applications. He’s also part of RTP Capital, a 55-member angel investor group in the Research Triangle Park area. If I were starting any business, I’d buy Preston lunch just to pick his brain.

Challenges remain

Improving the optimism for local companies to  secure local investment is Roberts’ primary goal with Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs.

“If a Wilmington start-up goes to, say, the Raleigh-Durham area looking for capital, the first question after the pitch is ‘How much have you raised locally from Wilmington?,’” says Roberts. “If the answer has typically been ‘no,’ the second question is then ‘Why are you in Wilmington?’”

Roberts is currently proud of Petrics, a company that offerstech-driven feeding solutions for multi-pet households. WALE was the first investor in the company whose technology involves individual wireless identifier collars and a gated food bowl that gives each pet their own food at several intervals during the day to combat life-shortening obesity, cross-species allergies, and potentially fatal “bloat.” Petrics was among five companies out of 230 to receive $50,000 in the New Venture Startup Compete Challenge in Winston-Salem last month.

Roberts also has a great partner in Jenni Harris, Southeast Regional Manager for the Economic Development Partnership of the North Carolina Department of Commerce. Harris was at UNCW’s CIE when they recruited Roberts as director. We had a lengthy discussion over her master’s thesis on the benefits of higher education and economic engagement and the counterintuitive backlash by some in media over business relationships with the academy.

I certainly look forward to returning to Wilmington, beyond that fact that my in-laws and several friends live there (and my apologies to them that I didn’t connect with them!). Roberts and his colleagues gave me an intense nine-hour sampler platter of the Wilmington entrepreneur community and I was still able to get home and sleep in my own bed.

The Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmingtonmeets monthly at 4:00 to 6:00+ pm, generally on the third Thursday of the month, at Ironclad Brewery. 115 North 2nd Street in downtown Wilmington (between Chestnut and Princess Streets). You can stay updated on their activities and related startup news by following them at their Facebook page.