Wilmington Makes Play in North Carolina’s Startup Scene

Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill’s research triangle will always be home to North Carolina’s largest startup scene—it’s been an established epicenter of innovation for more than 50 years and its Center for Entrepreneurial Development is one of the largest in the world. Jim Roberts isn’t disputing the research triangle’s rank as No. 1, he just wants to make sure Wilmington is seen as No. 2.

In the past year, Roberts, a serial starter of entrepreneur support organizations, has launched two new programs in the Wilmington region: Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) and Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE), an angel network for local startups.

IMG_1925NEW hosts monthly events at Wilmington’s Ironclad Brewery focused on preparing startups for more sales, locating investors and finding grants through programs like Small Business Innovation Research, Small Business Technology Transfer or NC IDEA. (Read Roberts’ recap from NEW’s most recent meetup.)

“While we all want these startups to become large employers to create great jobs with great pay, they all need capital to do that,” Roberts says. “There are three sources of capital for true startups—sales, investor capital and the least-known source, grants.”

Grants may be the least known, but Roberts says investment capital, particularly for early-stage ventures, is the hardest to get, which led to the formation of WALE in October. Serving as the manager, Roberts says he connects local startups to individual investors. His first match came between a member of WALE and Wilmington-based Petrics, a startup in the pet care tech space.

IMG_1168Roberts is quick to point out this is not Wilmington’s first angel network, but the first focused on funding for early-stage startups. “Our network fills a gap, providing first money in to help the local startups survive long enough to reach the more conservative investors in the region,” he says.

Roberts previously served as the executive director of UNC-Wilmington’sCenter for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where he prioritized reversing the brain drain of recent college graduates by creating stronger startups where they could work and learn how to be future entrepreneurs but stay in the Wilmington region.

Roberts points to companies like NextGlass and Elite Innovations Makerspace as examples of local startups that hire UNC-W graduates and students.