UNCW entrepreneurship center poised to make Wilmington an innovation beacon, director says

PortCityDaily.com is your source for free news and information in the Wilmington area.

Nearly 1,600 miles to its east, Boulder has caught attention.

On Wednesday, that Colorado town ranked first in Entrepreneur Magazine’s top-25 list of hotspots for technology startups.

Why should Wilmington care?

Jim Roberts was appointed executive director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in May. Photo by Ben Brown.
Jim Roberts was appointed executive director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in May. Photo by Ben Brown.

“Because Boulder is the exact same size as Wilmington,” said the head of a new Port City facility geared to perform as an accelerator for local entrepreneurial endeavors.

More importantly, said UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) Executive Director Jim Roberts, is that Boulder has already seen success with the accelerator concept, factoring into the national standing it can now boast.

So, “We have something to shoot for,” Roberts told a roomful of business, academic and government officials at the university Thursday evening.

They were gathered for an introduction to CIE, whose doors are scheduled for a grand opening Sept. 5 at 803 S. College Road as a “multipurpose accelerator, incubator, co-working space” and all around way to help entrepreneurs become smart, sustainable and able to thrive independently, according a planning presentation.

The co-working space, in a building right next to the university campus, will be available to entrepreneurs here for $100 a month, unless they are UNCW students, faculty or staff members, in which case rent will be free.

But it’s not a free ride, said Roberts. The entrepreneurs under the roof will have to swing hard, push and shape their ideas at the right speed and learn how to attract money, whether through grants or–as is the preference–through actual, private investors.

In other words, these entrepreneurs won’t be invited to stay at CIE, said Roberts. They’ll have to grow out of it and into their own space elsewhere in Wilmington, because their products or services are, ideally, successful here.

Three companies are already signed up, Roberts said.

“Six months later, you may see a whole new list of companies [at CIE],” he told the room at UNCW Thursday. “It’s very important to realize this is not a real estate play. We are simply not trying to fill offices. We need the right kind of companies in those offices.”

And the right kind will be at the “napkin stage,” he noted; they have intellectual property, but in such simple form one could draw it all on a serviette. In other words, they’re so new they haven’t made any crippling business mistakes and remain on the right track.

Larry Clark, dean of UNCW’s Cameron School of Business, on Thursday promised the gathering that Roberts would be the right conductor. “This guy is a great acquisition,” Clark said with his finger at Roberts’ chest.

According to his bio from UNCW, Roberts’ credits include starting the FirstRound entrepreneur council in Charlotte in 2000 before he moved to Asheville and initiated the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network. He later became a business development manager for the N.C. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Division.

While he made Boulder a touchstone Thursday, there are examples of similar accelerators in North Carolina. Durham–which came in at 22 on Entrepreneur Magazine’s hot-25 list–is home to an initiative called The American Underground. Its three locations in the Bull City and Raleigh give “high-growth companies the flexible office space and connections necessary to reach their potential,” according to promotional literature.

At its Main Street, Durham, location, co-working space offers likeminded persons the chance to work together in an open, creative environment, American Underground says, while “smoffices” and private suites there are geared for entrepreneurs working solo or in limited groups.

On site are five conference rooms with flat panel televisions for presentations to, for instance, potential investors who can vault the aspiring innovators to the next level.

The American Underground’s sendoffs include Adzerk, an online advertising platform that began with the Durham accelerator and raised $650,000 in seed capital that helped the company into a service load of literally billions of ad impressions monthly, according to its website. The business remains in Durham.

In July, the City of Wilmington included a grant of $70,000 in its budget for CIE, whose facilitators said was in need of infant-stage support in order to help out local entrepreneurs. Earlier this month, the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and BB&T presented the center a check for $50,000.

“It is my belief that this collaborative effort will ignite the spark that will help to positively move our community forward and help us to become a leader in not only creative ideas, but small business formation and job creation for many years to come,” the bank’s market president, Charlie Mattox, said after the gift.

Within a couple years or so, CIE hopes to be as self-sufficient as the businesses it plans to cast off.

The program also includes a privately operated venture capital account called the Seahawk Fund. Its goal is $20 million in private investments meant for the startups or other applicable economic development purposes.

“This is not like anything that I think Wilmington has ever seen,” Wilmington City Councilwoman Laura Padgett appraised during a presentation UNCW officials gave on the fund in June.

“Our community has the potential to be a real catalyst for business development and start-up success,” UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller said in a statement upon the Seahawk Fund’s unveling in April. “We want to help champion those entrepreneurs with the structure and resources that could lead to long-term, sustainable growth, new jobs for our area, and the establishment of Wilmington as a hotbed of innovative business development.”

Currently, Wilmington ranks as 24th in innovation in North Carolina, according to CIE, despite it being the state’s eighth-largest city.

Roberts said the startups that will brew in the CIE building, through their in-house guidance and brain sweat, will have to earn the dollars of investors through respect and deliverables they can relate to and feel good about.

If CIE is successful, Wilmington will move up in the innovation ranks, he declared.

But of course, with all the hard thinking, there should be a little amusement, Roberts insisted; it’s only a greatly important component of the creative process.

And so, he quipped, two of the standards at CIE may very well be “beer and pizza. So we’re going to try to have fun.”

Click here for more about the program.

Ben Brown is a news reporter at Port City Daily. Reach him at ben.b@hometownwilmington.com or (910) 772-6335. On Twitter: @benbrownmedia