Innovation occurs in an ecosystem, where individual components thrive off one another and allow for evolution.
Those components—entrepreneurial spirit, research and development, intellectual property lawyers, venture capital availability, among others—exist in Wilmington. But they’re not quite churning—yet.
So says John Hardin, executive director of the N.C. Board of Science & Technology, who visited the Port City on Thursday to observe its potential in the innovation economy.
“I’m optimistic for this region. And I think that there is real potential,” Hardin said in an interview. “If I were in a region where I didn’t feel that, I wouldn’t say it.”
Hardin, whose agency is under the N.C. Department of Commerce, was a lead author of the recently released “Tracking Innovation” report, which charted North Carolina’s performance by a variety of measures and points out the state has been in a transition to a knowledge-based economy. The state and its metro regions, like Wilmington, need to sharpen math and science education, tailor workforce training and boost business supports to capture the opportunities, the report suggests.
“There’s some restructuring going on in this economy,” Hardin said of the Wilmington area, pointing out such support efforts in recent years here. He called the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), where Thursday’s interview took place, a big driver in that, in addition to the higher education system itself.
CIE, which opened in September 2013, offers low-cost space, mentoring and funding connections to early-stage innovation startups so they can grow at an accelerated rate. The idea is they will become robust local businesses that help the Wilmington area build its innovation presence. Among tenants is GO2 LLC, a startup with a product that improves blood flow at the lower extremities and is winning accolades for innovation, as is the CIE-affiliated Next Glass, which has a Pandora-like app that scientifically suggests wines and beers its user will enjoy based on that user’s preferences.
Hardin said that energy, with such facilities and institutions at its core, will be the churner the ecosystem needs.
Building on strengths
Economic development officials advise the Cape Fear build on existing strengths, like marine sciences.
“New Hanover County is well positioned to take advantage of expanding opportunities in life/marine sciences research and development,” says a newly released report from Garner Economics, an Atlanta-based firm whose service the county commissioned.
In October 2013, a panel representing the area’s clinical research sector—there are more than 20 clinical research organizations (CROs) in the Wilmington area employing more than 2,500 people, they said—discussed the ecosystem potential. To that end, they advised building awareness between the organizations so they could refer clients to one another for various different services, like lab testing, biostatistics and medical writing.
That’s as opposed to a CRO referring clients to the Raleigh-Durham area, which is thriving in that sector. Panelists said Wilmington has the support system in place to do without out-of-town referrals—if the stakeholders become fully aware of how dynamic the offerings are in their own front yard.
That’s a mission of another regional effort, the N.C. Coast Clinical Research Initiative. “The clinical research industry cluster is vital to southeastern North Carolina, supporting knowledge-sector jobs to strengthen the region’s diverse economy,” the group says.
“Marine bio and the CROs are the two leading ones, and that is a strong base to build on,” Hardin agreed Thursday.
Scott Doron, assistant director of the N.C. Office of Science & Technology, said this area would be wise to invest in the support field of those industries—nursing, biostatistics—noting also it could draw off the surging research and development powerhouse of the Raleigh-Durham area.
“That is a very, very smart way to spend resources,” Doron said.
The county’s Garner report additionally recommends that this area’s governing bodies and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce push for the creation of a pharmacy school to complement the existing assets.
“There is a lot of good stuff going on in Wilmington, but it isn’t well communicated,” said an unidentified focus group member Garner quoted in its report.
Commerce officials note that the high-tech and innovation sectors aren’t always the most visible because they aren’t a large presence, personnel-wise, relatively. But Wilmington’s Tom Looney, whose past business credits include working alongside Steve Jobs at computer company NeXT Inc., and later at Microsoft, said there’s a multiplier effect that makes innovation companies metaphorical to rabbits.
Every innovation job, he said, creates five additional, non-innovation jobs in the regional economy (a stat stated in a book by economist Enrico Moretti called “The New Geography of Jobs,” released in May 2012).
“This is critical to understand, because it really explains why some communities are prospering,” said Looney. “They are prospering not only because the innovation sector itself is growing, but also because all the other sectors of the economy are growing as a consequence.”
(Forbes Magazine last month put out an article titled, “7 Reasons It’s Finally Time to Live in Research Triangle Park,” the global innovation hub in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. A year ago, the same publication named Raleigh the fastest-growing city in America. )
The “Tracking Innovation” report generally agrees with Looney.
“As the North Carolina economy continues to shift,” it says, “the job creation potential of the innovation economy could help the state to replace jobs in declining industries.”