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Sound Off: Fledgling Firms Need Fuel To Grow

Startups need capital for the fuel to be able to have explosive growth and begin large job creation, which is what the general public really cares about.

The general public thinks of Shark Tank investors or the quirky, risk loving venture capitalists seen on the show Silicon Valley. In the real business world, it can take three months for a serious investor to do their due diligence on the entrepreneurs, management and market for the startup company.

INVESTOR, VENTURE CAPITAL

Wilmington has had three angel investor networks: WIN, Cape Fear IMAF and my Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE) that has now made eight investments since October 2015. Cape Fear IMAF made investments in Next- Glass (Untappd) and GroundFloor. us. NextGlass/Untappd, past Coastal Entrepreneur of the Year winner, is now near 100 employees in downtown Wilmington and started in 2013 as an idea between a father and son. A startup needs angel investors to get to the larger venture capital firms as you have seen with nCino. And we need to put together better local life sciences deals to put in front of Eshelman Ventures.

FEDERAL GRANTS

One of the biggest aspects of hard sciences startups that separate Wilmington and the rest of North Carolina from the bullish Raleigh/ Durham region is the pursuit of federal research grants. This will be crucial if there is going to be a life sciences/biotech/medical device industry at the coast. Wilmington trails Asheville in the pursuit of these grants.

Jen McCall of UNCW and her startup SeaTox Research have received multiple federal grants. It is possible for coastal innovators, and the state of North Carolina will match the first round of grants through Dr. John Hardin and the NC Department of Commerce.

MUST APPLY TO WIN

Cities, organizations and accelerators all over the South and beyond have business plan pitch competitions which draw investor attention, but Wilmington startups choose not to apply. (Not for lack of awareness.)

Places like Greensboro; Winston- Salem; Danville, Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina, have business plan pitch contests that award $5,000 to $50,000.

NC IDEA is a statewide organization that gives five $50,000 non-dilutive grants every quarter. Investors use these grants as a qualifier or validation to consider investment and reduce risk. Only one Wilmington startup has ever won this grant in their 12 year history. I have been a judge for NC IDEA in past years. Four local startups are now semi-finalists.

One of the real challenges of the Wilmington startup market is that we have so many first-time entrepreneurs who have never built a company toward an acquisition or toward an IPO on Wall Street. While UNC Wilmington Cameron School of Business has an excellent program for students to meet local retired executives, the city has not been able to connect the local entrepreneurs in a meaningful way.

These first-time entrepreneurs need trusted mentors who can play advisory roles, roles on the Board of Directors, can introduce these entrepreneurs to potential business partners and investors in bigger cities. Companies like Brilliant Sole, Petrics, Pursuit Sleep Technology, Ten8Tech and other local startups need and require this kind of assistance.

The startup events that NEW and Bunker Labs host at Ironclad Brewery are very well attended by local entrepreneurs and regional investors. (No, there is not free beer at these events to explain the popularity.)

What if Front Street was full of growing startups where the 50+ well paid employees also had equity when the company is acquired? That is one way a city and a region changes economic mobility, generational wealth and creates a new middle class.

Jim Roberts was the founding executive director of the CIE and is the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW), founder of Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE) and director of community development for Bunker Labs.