Tech boom bang. Or that was the impression, perhaps, when the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) began at the University of North Carolina Wilmington three years ago.
Created as a resource for entrepreneurs and small business, a jump-start in the regional economy, the center now has a new director, Diane Durance. Durance said she has been speaking with stakeholders, including the university and local community, and funding partners, to determine their beliefs about the center and what it seeks to accomplish.
While there may be varying opinions, Durance is using what she hears, as well as what she knows from her years working in an entrepreneurial environment, to inform the center’s path forward and offer realistic goals based on her experience.
Durance came to Wilmington from Michigan, where she was president of MiQuest, an organization that supports early- and second-stage ventures in that state. She also clocked in time as president of the Ann Arbor IT Zone, a regional incubator for startup technology ventures.
Jim Roberts served as the CIE’s former director before leaving in March 2015 and was followed up by Chuck Whitlock as interim while the school conducted a national search.
Durance intentionally spent her first day on the job in June in front of the Wilmington City Council. She was part of a team of university representatives discussing the center and how it is intended to help local entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Durance said it was important for her to understand about the questions the city, which included funding for the CIE in its budget – $70,000 this year – had about the center and what it seeks to accomplish.
UNCW opened the center’s predecessor, called the Center for Entrepreneurship and located on campus, in 2009 as a resource center.
The CIE – expanded in scope from the original office and moved to its current location at 803 S. College Road – was created in 2013 to foster high-growth, high-impact companies in southeastern North Carolina. It has subsequently hosted some 100 events a year providing business skills and opportunities for like-minded entrepreneurial people from the university and the community. It has more than a dozen employees, many of whom are UNCW employees. In addition, the center has more than 34 tenants that use the facility.
Durance is currently working on a strategic plan that falls in line with UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli’s overall strategy for the university.
From Durance’s perspective and understanding, the center initially focused on the commercialization of technology that came out of the university. Later, the vision morphed a bit by including community entrepreneurs as another audience the center served. More recently, there was a feeling among university members that students should be more integrated into the mix of audiences served by the center.
“There’s been a push-pull among the three audiences,” Durance said. “I think that it’s been a struggle in defining itself and who it’s serving.”
More specifically, though, she is concentrating on building on what’s been done before she came onboard and on organizing specific “tracks” for members of the university community, entrepreneurs in the area and university students.
The types of opportunities, activities and assistance the center can provide will vary by audience. These might include business skills such as marketing and networking. From there, they will provide more targeted – and in the case of entrepreneurs who are further in the commercialization pipeline – more detailed information.
So the CIE isn’t for everyone trying to expand their business or start one. There are other organizations, such as those assisting small business development, that can help those individuals.
Durance will also look at the center’s fiscal sustainability. The plan has always been for the center to be self-sustained by 2018. Durance said self-sustenance comes in many forms; it doesn’t necessarily mean the center will pay its bills by charging rent to tenants, for example. In fact, by virtue of the people and organizations they serve – entrepreneurs and startups – it’s not likely they’ll be able to pay market price for rents. There are opportunities, however, to seek grant funding to support the center’s activities without relying on the city.
Performance measures will be the typical ones associated with centers like the CIE: How many companies have been started? How many people are employed by these companies? How many startups will get funded and at what level?
But there’s a different kind of measurement, as well, for Durance.
“You feel it when it’s happening because people are feeling energized,” she said.
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