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Fostering A Startup Ecosystem

A study recently revealed that the startup ecosystem in Wilmington is growing, showing that the region’s entrepreneurs and support systems are gaining recognition on a global scale.

Startup Genome, a research and policy advisory organization, ranked Wilmington tied in the 90-100 spot in its “Top 100 Emerging Ecosystems” study.

“As startup culture and entrepreneurship spreads across the world, different ecosystems are gaining relevance and impacting economies in a meaningful way,” the study stated. “The factor weights used to rank these ecosystems are slightly different from those used with top ecosystems to reflect their emerging status and emphasize the factors that influence more in ecosystems that are just beginning to grow.”

Other places in North Carolina also appeared in the ranking, with Research Triangle Park taking the 10th spot and Charlotte tied in the 31-40 spot.

The emerging ecosystem ranking was made using a weighted average of scores including performance, funding, market reach and experience and talent. Performance, which measures exits and startup growth, and funding, which measures early- stage funding volume and growth, weighed the most heavily in Startup Genome’s methodology.

On a scale from 1-10, Wilmington scored a 1 in performance, 4 in funding and market reach and 1 in talent and experience.

When it comes to the funding category, Shreesh Dubey, a business analyst Startup Genome, said Wilmington has over 60 early-stage fundings in the time period of 2017 to the first half of 2019.

Recent news from Wilmington companies have put the region on the map, those involved in the Wilmington startup ecosystem said. Jim Roberts, founder of Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs, said the amount of capital raised by nCino, Apiture, Untappd and EasyVote Solutions helped Wilmington in the ranking.

“Think about Untappd going from a father-and-son team in 2013 to employing 125 people with a downtown headquarters. I believe they had over 80 individual angel investors and angel groups involved,” he said. “The numbers of people that Live Oak Bank, nCino and Apiture employ who are UNCW graduates is very impressive.”

Next Glass, the parent company of Untappd, announced in April that it had received an undisclosed investment from Boston-based equity firm Providence Strategic Growth that officials said will accelerate the company’s growth.

In 2019, nCino, a Wilmington banking software company, raised $80 million, for total funding of about $205 million since 2014.

Also, earlier this month, nCino announced it’s IPO plans.

Apiture, a company whose platforms support financial institutions’ digital banking services, raised $20 million this month to be used to support innovation.

Heather McWhorter, regional director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington SBTDC, said some notable companies in the region have been growing and receiving investment.

When it comes to funding, Roberts said the region has made progress in funding locally considering WALE investors have invested over $1 million since 2015, and IMAF (Inception Micro Angel Fund) Cape Fear has invested locally as well.

“We have opened the coastal corridor for investors from the Raleigh/Durham market,” Roberts said. “NEW has hosted over 60 investors from Raleigh and Durham since 2015. And some of those investors have written actual checks like IMAF RTP into Untappd and National Speed and Cofounders Capital into EasyVote Solutions.”

While funding has increased in the region, more is needed, McWhorter said.

“Entrepreneurs need more early- stage funding, and this will pay off in the long run with scalable companies and jobs,” McWhorter said.

For the Wilmington region to continue to grow its startup ecosystem, a focused approach on building and fostering investment and seed opportunities for businesses at different stages of development is needed, she said.

“I would also like to see even more industry-academia partnerships between UNC Wilmington and regional businesses, as well as even more research activity that is turned into commercial businesses,” McWhorter said. “Both will contribute to the success of our region, as universities are hubs for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Roberts said the region must continue to encourage more local potential investors to get involved.

“Mentors have to get more hands-on and involved to open doors for young, first-time entrepreneurs. We have had wealthy successful people retiring to Wilmington since I-40 opened in 1989,” he said. “How can we get these retired executives to open doors for local entrepreneurs in bigger cities like Boston, New York so our entrepreneurs can sell their products in bigger markets and find additional investors?”

“This is required for our local companies to scale, hire and pay competitive wages to attract tech talent,” he added.

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