Editor’s Note: Jim R. Roberts is the Founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and the WALE Angel Network. Prior to being the Founding Executive Director of the UNCW CIE incubator, Jim also worked for the Durham based Center of Innovation for NanoBiotech (COIN), funded by the NC Biotechnology Center. Jim also started Entrepreneur Support Organizations in Charlotte and Asheville. Jim serves on committees for NC IDEA, NC TECH, and CED. He was also an employee of the North Carolina Department of Commerce in the International Trade Division.
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WILMINGTON – Aren’t you glad that I-40 expanded EAST in 1990? You love that smooth ride to the beach until Labor Day each year. (Just don’t speed in Duplin County as your speeding tickets are a serious part of their county revenue.)
But now we are using the road for business purposes too, not just for the sunshine at the beach for fish tacos with a cold adult beverage.
We call it the Coastal Corridor. (We are the same exact distance from Raleigh as the “Great State of Mecklenburg” also known as Charlotte.) But Wilmington knows this road travels both ways. I think I-85 is a two way road…
Thanks to professional friends who work for NC TECH, NC IDEA, CED, RIOT and others, Wilmington has been using this as a two way relationship and flow of resources since 2013. This has resulted in a new increase in annual awards, startup grants, stage time at pitch events and conferences and well some new friendships and relationships. Wilmington had more attendees and participants at the 2022 CED Venture Connect investor conference than any North Carolina city located outside of the Triangle.
HALF A BILLION REASONS
We have arranged for more than $500,000,000 worth of capital from out of town visit Wilmington and speak at our events over the last three months. Yes, half a BILLION dollars. Can’t you just picture me with the Dr. Evil pinky gesture?
Our November 10 event will mark 95 investors from out of town who have spoken at our events at the beach since the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington was started in 2015.
And according to NC TECH’s most recent Tech Talent Index, Wilmington ranks among the best 55 metropolitan statistical areas in the United States for technology talent, technology supply, and innovation. More importantly, Wilmington ranks more than 100 spots higher for tech and innovation compared to the region’s rank on total current population.
OK, before you get the wrong idea, we are not stealing startups / entrepreneurs from the Triangle. We can’t say that the Triangle hasn’t stolen some of our startups.
But we are having a great Life Sciences startup event on November 10th and we are inviting all of your Triangle based entrepreneur resources to Wilmington to make the most of the opportunity. We are working on this event to highlight the work of the NC Healthcare Meetup group at the coast run by local entrepreneurs.
Well, these entrepreneurial resources are not actually owned by the Triangle. The NC Biotech Center is funded by the North Carolina General Assembly, the whole state’s legislature. The First Flight Venture Center is located in Research Triangle Park that was funded by the whole state of North Carolina.
And Mr. Art Pappas of Pappas Capital, who will be a part of our closing session at our November 10th event, is going to search the globe for the best deal flow he can find for his $250 million venture fund for Life Sciences companies to invest in.
Granted, this is an aspirational event for our region. We are helping our current early stage startups prepare to mature to a point where they may be ready to meet a venture capital fund down the road.
DOES WILMINGTON HAVE A LIFE SCIENCES SECTOR?
Well, consider this: Our November 10th event is now sold out. A half day event focused on the life sciences sector with presenting startups, a panel full of helpful resources specific to life sciences and a third session with early and late stage investors for life sciences.
What we do currently have is the former PPD Clinical Research HQ building, and this building is now available for sale, listed on the open market, following the acquisition of PPD by Thermo Fisher Scientific. So Wilmington has an asset that RTP is trying to develop and North Hills is developing at a very high cost.
UNCW is not the same kind of powerhouse as the conveniently located THREE Tier ONE research universities placed in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh each with BILLIONS of dollars of federally funded research. But there is a VERY interesting new chemistry professor at the coast with a novel idea around technology that will not require cold storage of vaccines for transportation into third world countries. This early stage startup is already working with the First Flight Venture Center experts.
We do have a startup with a partial solution to the opioid crisis that people seem to want to sweep under the rug. But Wilmington can’t sweep opioids under the rug because Wilmington is the #1 opioid problem city in the USA with 11.6% of working age adults with some level of addiction.
With these people, we want to be clear, the addiction often does not START in Wilmington. (Opioid Use Disorder and other addictions have many causes and we care about all of our neighbors.) A growing startup called OpiAID is working on a tech based solution. OpiAID is now a Finalist for the NC IDEA SEED grant and has won a SBIR grant from NIH (National Institute of Health) that was “matched” by the North Carolina Office of Science and Technology, based at the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
And the term Life Sciences is pretty broad when you are trying to build a cluster. Wilmington is also home to another NC IDEA grant winner named Lab Logs. Since North Carolina is the home of the clinical research organization industry, there are challenges in monitoring all of that lab equipment on a daily basis. Lab Logs has now taken that process from a handwritten checklist to an electronic process that is much more reliable. This company has matured beyond the startup stage with investor capital and a growing list of clients.
DOES WILMINGTON HAVE THE TALENT?
Well where do you think all of that virtual office work is now being done? The place with the best views even in the off season and much less traffic than the Triangle.
And for the first time in the history of UNCW, some of the graduates of the sciences programs are now able to stick around with a new set of opportunities. A local company Quality Chemical Laboratories is close to wrapping up a 110,000 sq foot expansion. The founder of Quality Chemical Labs recently made a large donation to the university. A new company called Frontier Scientific Solutions is opening a large facility near the port. Signs of progress at the coast.
In an industry with a talent crunch, Wilmington offers a competitive advantage for companies that have a beach / coastal / river location where people can be productive. One of our great FinTech companies, nCino, calls it “Hustling in Comfort.”