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Building A Tech Culture

By Jenny Callison, posted Jun 20, 2014
tekMountain (above), opening in late June on the top floor of CastleBranch’s new building, is designed to nurture startups and provide a place for the tech community to meet and share ideas. (photo by Chirs Brehmer)
You might say that Tanner Clayton is a technology immigrant. Four years ago this month, Clayton brought WaveRider, his mobile technology development business, to Wilmington from Santa Cruz, California. He and his wife were attracted by the area’s beaches and by Wilmington’s historic, river-bordered downtown.

Since then, Clayton has guided his company to better articulate its vision, mission and culture, and WaveRider has increased revenues significantly and doubled its staff.

“It’s been an interesting time for me: getting here, becoming familiar with the town and simultaneously seeing its burgeoning tech community becoming more connected, more excited. I’m still learning about new tech companies I wasn’t aware of,” he said. “And it’s not just happening downtown; we’ve now got [University of North Carolina Wilmington’s] Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. That has been huge; they support a lot of startups, and most of them are in the tech realm.”

Jim Roberts, executive director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), believes Wilmington should compete for the technology industry.

“I certainly study other cities like Durham, Austin, Raleigh, Boston and Boulder to see what they do to help tech industry startups,” he said.

What they are doing, he noted, are creating accelerators, ramping up angel fund activity and arranging with lawyers, accountants and marketing experts to hold pro bono “office hours” during which they advise early-stage tech companies.

“I also look at how many startups from each community are on competitive showcase events,” Roberts said. “We measure ourselves against other cities of similar size.”

Ian Oelscher, an information architect and writer for IBM who lives in Wilmington, said that, since he lacks local coworkers, he must make an effort to connect with other techies in the area.

“We look to Silicon Valley, Austin – maybe these are exceptional places,” Oelscher said. “I wish there were a tech community here. I seem to notice more technology [in Wilmington] than I did before, but we’re not there yet.”

Clayton sees progress toward that kind of community with the CIE.

He gives a nod also to the soon-to-open tekMountain, located in CastleBranch’s new headquarters building. He believes it will have an impact on the area’s tech community.

The custom-designed facility, which will offer workspace to aspiring entrepreneurs within CastleBranch as well as to startups from outside the company, is designed to be a “sandbox for tech people and entrepreneurs,” tekMountain director Audrey Speicher said.

“We want to be part of an ecosystem that begets energy – the more you have, the more you get,” she said, adding that tekMountain would also be a venue for tech meetups and programs of all sorts.

Developing a sense of community among tech companies and tech workers is essential if Wilmington is to become a vibrant center for technology, Roberts said. He points to the fact that Next Glass offered to let Derrick Wragge, who is creating a mobile app for running groups, use its variety of mobile phones to test his product called Wolfpack.

David Usher is already benefiting from the growing tech community. New to Wilmington, he opened his local franchise of CMIT Solutions, a provider of managed services and other computer consulting services, in Coworx at Barclay Commons.

“I’m in the space between [wine recommendation company] Next Glass and [e-marketing partner] Hüify. Every day they are excited,” Usher said.

Connections are also vital if Wilmington is to build a technology hub, Roberts said. 

“There are so many retired executives that live in Wilmington,” he said. “We need for them to open up their lists of contacts and invite their friends [from other places] to come visit and be part of this community – talk about their experience, so we can learn from them. If they find some business they like when they’re in town, they can maybe open some doors, become an investor in a Wilmington company.”

Roberts said that, in the year he has been at the CIE, he has done exactly that: invited his contacts in North Carolina’s entrepreneurship and technology communities to come share their expertise with aspiring entrepreneurs in Wilmington.

He has focused on helping startups prepare to make effective pitches that will impress investors and attract another necessity: capital.

Presentations by Next Glass as part of its competition for a Coastal Entrepreneur Award this year convinced IMAF Cape Fear to make a $120,000 investment in the startup.

“It is important that IMAF made that investment,” Roberts said. “We have to improve local deals and create better deals. You can’t blame the audience when a TV show gets canceled. We’re prepping [several startups] for these deals.”

Human capital is important as well. A tech hub requires an abundance of skilled workers; workers like the local techie Usher just hired to help CMIT install and maintain computer systems, but also coders, designers, data analysts and visionary thinkers.

Thanks to Skype and other communications technology, it’s getting easier for far-flung team members to work together, said Matthew Magne, a Wilmington resident who works remotely for Cary-based SAS software. But it’s nice when the core of the team can be in the same physical space.

Magne has seen awareness of Wilmington’s tech community – and its activity level – rise significantly in the 10 years he has been here, aided partly by Cape Fear Community College’s ability to offer classes that teach coding and other tech skills.

Another change that makes it easier for aspiring tech companies to get a foothold is the rise of technology focused on applications. That kind of enterprise requires a much smaller footprint and budget than does a company with broader goals, Magne explained.

“Wilmington has a CRO [contract research organization] cluster,” he said. “It could also have an app development cluster.”

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