More details emerge on UNCW's Seahawk Fund
June 5, 2013By Jenny Callison
University of North Carolina Wilmington’s new Seahawk Innovation Fund will be one important component of an “innovation campus” that will take root at the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
That’s according to entrepreneur Tom Looney, the keynote speaker at a program Wednesday about Becoming an Investor-Ready Entrepreneur. The all-day forum was held at UNCW.
Looney described the recently announced fund as designed to fill the so-called “Valley of Death” funding gap that exists when a new venture needs to move beyond seed money from the entrepreneur’s immediate contacts but is too young and unproven to attract venture capital.
“We will carve our niche between ‘friends, family and angels’ and risk-averse, large deal-oriented venture capital firms,” said Looney, who will be one of three general partners of the Seahawk Fund. He said the other general partners will be Tobin Geatz, serial entrepreneur and investor, and Dallas Romanowski, principal of Cornerstone Advisory Partners and manager of the Cape Fear Inception Micro Angel Fund (IMAF).
Looney added that the three partners would serve without pay initially and would provide full-time focus on attracting investors to the fund, whose goal, according to UNCW officials, is $20 million. Grants are expected to be in the $500,000-$1.5 million range, Looney said.
Looney on Wednesday did not specify a timeframe for when the fund would be ready to start making grants.
“UNCW is the first university in the state of North Carolina to do a fund model like this,” Looney said. “It will be a model for the state – perhaps the nation. I give Gary [UNCW chancellor Gary Miller] and his team credit for stepping up, making this area more competitive.”
The Seahawk Fund may be distinctive, but several other institutions within the UNC system have developed venture capital funds that address their own circumstances and the needs of their communities, said Joni Worthington, spokeswoman for the system.
Worthington furnished three examples:
Eastern Carolina University's Eastern NC Investor Network is convened by ECU with a private company in the Greenville area. Its managers make decisions about whether to invest in promising local and campus-originated companies.
N.C. State University's Chancellor’s Innovation Fund funds four to seven projects a year to develop proof-of-concept for promising technologies. Individual investments, which come from a private source, can be as large as $75,000.
And University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has the Gillings Innovation Lab awards, whose funds come from a private donor, and the Carolina Kickstart Commercialization Program.
"These are all different, but they are variations on a concept," Worthington said.
Although the Seahawk Fund will be part of the university-related center, UNCW will neither manage the fund nor contribute to it financially. University officials also hope that the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship itself will be self-sustaining in five years.
In describing the “innovation campus,” Looney listed the entrepreneurship resources that will exist under the aegis of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, with its new director Jim Roberts.
“There will be the SBTDC [Small Business Technology Development Center], the Seahawk Fund and local startups. There will be a collision of talent, ideas and capital, which is necessary for success,” Looney said. He added that young ventures from outside the region would be welcome to apply for Seahawk funds but must commit to moving their business to Wilmington if they receive funding.