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UNCW Officials Look At CIE's Future

By Jenny Callison, posted Mar 27, 2015
What’s next for UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, following the departure Thursday of Jim Roberts, the center’s executive director?

University of North Carolina Wilmington officials said Friday that Ron Vetter, associate provost for research and dean of UNCW’s graduate school, will step in temporarily.

“Dr. Vetter will continue to oversee the CIE and will support day-to-day operations for the time being; his  focus, and the university's, remains on our tenants and our partners on- and off–campus,” said UNCW spokeswoman Janine Iamunno in an email Friday. “We are fully committed to the success of the CIE and to the important role it plays in the community and the region.”

Three years after UNCW’s then-chancellor Gary Miller announced that the Entrepreneurship Center would be reorganized as a nonprofit LLC, the entity seems to be on track in realizing at least some aspects of Miller’s vision for it as a source of entrepreneurship resources for the entire community.

To achieve that goal, university officials moved the center to larger space off campus and brought in Jim Roberts as the LLC’s first executive director in May 2013.

Miller also laid out plans for a Seahawk Innovation Fund, which would make grants to Wilmington-area startups and help commercialize product ideas emerging from the university community.

Today that fund exists legally but has not yet materialized, Vetter said Friday. He said that discussions are ongoing with Tobin Geatz and Tom Looney, who originally were named fund managers, to find a way forward with the Seahawk Innovation Fund. 

In the meantime, however, Geatz and Looney had created Seahawk Innovations LLC, a for-profit business consultancy and venture capital company that is based at the CIE. Despite the entity’s name and use of a sea hawk in its logo and name similar to the proposed fund, the LLC has no legal affiliation with the university. There is an agreement in place, however: in exchange for its space and access to university resources – including human capital in the form of UNCW students – Seahawk Innovations has  agreed to give UNCW an equity interest in every company it creates.

Venture capital fund aside, it’s clear that the CIE has come a long way from its infant stage, evolved into its own physical facility and demonstrated success in first year and a half, Vetter said.

Today, the CIE counts 41 early-stage ventures as its tenants. It hosts frequent programs for the entrepreneurship community and puts startups in touch with resources to help them develop. Roberts, who, one associate joked, has the “world’s biggest Rolodex,” worked to connect local entrepreneurs with resources all across the state.

“Jim has a passion for entrepreneurship and worked tirelessly to put Wilmington on the map as a hub of startup activity,” said Joan Siefert Rose, president of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development in Durham. “The North Carolina entrepreneurial community owes him a debt of gratitude for all he has done and we wish him the very best in his next endeavor.”

Rocco Quaranto, a former CIE tenant who is now president of medical device company Surgilum, concurs.

“I think the CIE has gotten a lot of traction, especially in 2015,” Quaranto said Friday. Calling the center a catalyst for entrepreneurial activity and awareness, he said, “There are a ton of valuable, informative events going on, getting people out of their offices and becoming a community. That’s where I saw the CIE going. I hope the next person continues on that path.”

Developing as an internal counterpart to the CIE and its external focus is the re-formed Office of Innovation and Commercialization within UNCW, which Vetter oversees as well. The OIC, which seeks to be a pipeline to commercialization for student, staff and faculty startups, will be undergirded by the Chancellor’s Intellectual Property (IP) Fund – similar to the way Vetter hopes that the CIE’s work will be enhanced by an active Seahawk Innovation Fund.

The two complementary centers, although separated by an organizational boundary and under separate directors, will pursue a common goal of enhancing the tech and entrepreneurial environment locally, Vetter said.

“We want to tie the intellectual capital of the university more strongly to the area’s business startups and entrepreneurs,” he said, explaining that the CIE is uniquely positioned to harness that capital to business development locally, especially with UNCW’s requirement that every student engage in some kind of applied learning endeavor.

“What a wonderful way: get them working in your startup. It’s a win-win, and it will get better over time,” Vetter said. “We as institution have confidence that we are going to be a player in this area. We are committed as ever to making [the CIE] a success. 

Quaranto also thinks there’s enough momentum now within the CIE that progress will continue.

“It’s a snowball turning into an avalanche, and I don’t think that things will screech to a halt just because Jim has left. That doesn’t discredit Jim, it credits him,” Quaranto said.
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