State backing for the Innovate Southeastern North Carolina (SENC) project supporting the marine biotech and life sciences sectors in the area came to an end this summer. But organizers want to keep their mission moving forward.
The Wilmington region was one of five metro areas in the state chosen to participate in a two-year economic development effort called InnovateNC, spearheaded by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University in 2015.
As part of the statewide effort, InnovateSENC has worked over the past two years to develop a strategic plan for the region, including long- and short-term goals in the targeted sectors, said Gary Vidmar, chairman of InnovateSENC and Leland’s economic development director.
InnovateSENC’s work was supported through $250,000 worth of in-kind services. But the official state-supported initiative has timed out, with the last cross-city meet up on June 9 in Wilson.
“The five cities that participated are now left to find their own way and funding to continue efforts in their region,” Vidmar said.
Future plans are now developing to make the program self-sustainable and to further InnovateSENC’s goal to capitalize on the region’s research and support in the marine biotech and life sciences sectors, expand its infrastructure and attract new companies in those industries, providing jobs for the region.
Over the past two years, the group has made strides in connecting with startup companies in the two markets, providing them with resources to help their ability to grow, Vidmar said.
InnovateSENC also helped attract a regional track of Fish 2.0, an international competition connecting investors and entrepreneurs in the sustainable seafood sector.
As part of Fish 2.0, Wilmington was selected to host a track focused on the shellfish industry for grant applicants in a 12-state region, Vidmar said.
InnovateSENC collaborated with University of North Carolina Wilmington to help support its partnership in a $250 million public-private consortium called the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), based at the University of Delaware.
NIIMBL has a mission is to accelerate biopharmaceutical manufacturing innovation across the nation to make the U.S. more competitive in the global industry.
Daniel Baden, executive principal of UNCW’s MABIONC, is the university representative in the consortium, supported by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is funding the national project.
Through Baden’s representation, Vidmar said, InnovateSENC will also be a participant. The group is helping to support that grant program with MARBIONC, he said.
Baden previously served as cochair for InnovateSENC. He recently said he was stepping down from his role, but looks forward to being involved in the group’s future.
“The first two years were a lot of hard work by a whole group of people … everybody just really pulled a lot of weight to get this to the state that it is now,” Baden said. “I think that we will start to see things happen by themselves. People will come in because of what we have done in the past.”
Now the group is working to push forward. A nod by its executive committee members recently solidified the decision to keep the going.
Vidmar said the executive committee has decided to conduct its monthly meetings at the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, beginning Aug. 8.
In the long term, Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber would see how the InnovateSENC initiative fits into the chamber’s plans to facilitate continued development across all disciplines “to build a community that is attractive for creation, expansion and retention of many industries, including life sciences and marine biotechnology.”
Of becoming more engaged with the chamber, Vidmar said, “That’ll provide the impetus to keep us moving forward.
“Beyond that time will tell as to what that really means and how we accomplish that,” he said. “Once we begin meeting there and engaging in conversations with them and meeting more directly with them, we will get a better idea of how we fit into their supportive structure.”