After questions surfaced about money the city of Wilmington is expected to provide to UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Enterpreneurship, a delegation from the university and CIE presented its case to city council members at a meeting Monday.
The recommended city budget for the next fiscal year, which is up for a final reading and vote at the city council’s meeting Tuesday night, includes $70,000 earmarked for the University of North Carolina Wilmington's CIE. George Taylor, chairman of startup Next Glass, wrote in an email that he believed the city should not provide the funding, according to a WECT report
earlier this month.
That is the same amount the city budgeted last year to support the CIE.
At the city council's agenda briefing Monday, Councilman Kevin O’Grady told the visiting UNCW and CIE group that he believed the center's concept was a simpler one and less connected to UNCW programs when the city council first agreed to provide some funding to the CIE about three years ago. That simpler idea, O'Grady said, was to bring fledgling businesses together in a room or a building where they could learn from each other, grow and then graduate from the incubator environment.
“Now it’s morphed into something very different," O'Grady said. "Now the question is, is this still something the taxpayers should be supporting?”
After the meeting Monday, O’Grady said, “We still need to hear some more about exactly how the program is running and what it’s producing and also how it’s being financed. With every other nonprofit we work with, we see their budgets and we know what percentage of their budget our contribution is.”
UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli told the council Monday that university officials will “be more than happy” to come back to them with a financial explanation of how the money is used. He said he believes the CIE is worth the investment from taxpayers.
In addition to Sartarelli, the CIE’s new director
, Diane Durance, whose first day in her new position was Monday, joined the UNCW group making the presentation to the city council, a talk that was led by Ron Vetter, UNCW’s associate provost for research and dean of the graduate school.
“We have our new director in place. We’re continuing on this five-year plan for sustainability. The initial pitch was made in 2013 that we were going to have a five-year initiative funded in part by the city, funded in part by businesses – like BB&T has been a great supporter, chamber of commerce, the university itself. And over a five-year period, we’re going to develop a business plan to make us self-sustaining,” Vetter told city officials. “That is still our goal, it’s still something we strive for every day that we’re looking to try to do.”
Describing CIE successes, Vetter said facial analytics and biodemography company Lapetus Solutions
now has 14 employees and pays on average more than $50,000 per employee, many of whom are UNCW graduates.
“Those kids are now staying here,” he said.
The first round of funding for Lapetus resulted in an investment of more than $1 million, though he couldn’t disclose the exact amount, Vetter said. A subsequent round of funding is expected to bring $10 million and facilitate the hiring of 50 people over the next year, he said.
Vetter also mentioned the Seahawk Innovation Fund and Dive LLC, a startup working on an automated beach and riptide warning system at the CIE. He said the center currently has 34 tenants at its South College Road facility.
In response to O'Grady's statement about the CIE's beginnings, Vetter said the original intent of CIE is still there. He and Sartarelli told the city council that the center is and has always been open to the public, with anyone allowed to come in and get advice on starting a business.
If the council approves the $169 million budget for next year – which starts July 1 – with the CIE’s $70,000 line item included, that doesn’t mean that funding will actually be dispersed to the center, O’Grady said.
He said he's hoping to find out exactly what businesses have been produced by the CIE, explaining, "I don't see it as being opposed; I see it as doing the due diligence that the city usually does before it makes contributions. We've got a very elaborate review process that's carried through by our staff."