A group of about 30 visitors got behind the scenes in the Wilmington area business community Monday and Tuesday to see what resources are available in the area to spur innovation.
The event, the first in InnovateNC: A Cross-City Learning Collaborative, involved representatives of five metropolitan areas in the state selected to take part in the state’s new InnovateNC initiative. The economic development initiative, a program of N.C. State University's Institute of Emerging Issues, is designed to help those communities brainstorm, collaborate and find viable paths to economic growth, according to Gary Vidmar, Leland’s economic and community development director, and co-chair of the Wilmington area Innovation Council.
Each of the five communities chosen for the two-year inaugural initiative chose an economic development focus. For example, Wilson, which has the fastest broadband in the state, will use its broadband capabilities to attract new economic activity. The Wilmington area’s focus is the life sciences and marine biotechnology.
As originally envisioned when the initiative was announced
in September, the local Innovation Council will work with the Institute for Emerging Issues and other partners to build a marine and life sciences economic cluster within the region, their efforts supported by $250,000 in services from the institute and elsewhere.
Following a presentation and tour of Brunswick Community College’s new incubator space Tuesday, however, Vidmar said the local initiative will need to broaden its focus beyond marine biotechnology if it is to capture the attention of the business community in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
“Lots of folks don’t know anything about marine biotechnology, so we’re broadening the path to bring more business people in” to the initiative, he said, adding that the local InnovateNC program is aiming to “connect the dots” between science and business.
Monday’s tour was heavy on academics and biotechnology.
The group spent the morning at University of North Carolina’s MARBIONC facility, hearing from the university’s marine science researchers and from Deb Mosca, head of the Marine Biotechnology Center of Innovation. In the afternoon, they regrouped at tekMountain, a coworking space atop CastleBranch Corp.'s headquarters. There they heard from Joe Finley, CastleBranch co-founder and tekMountain partner, as well as Randall Johnson, director of the Southeast Office of the N.C. Biotechnology Center.
Three area early-stage investors talked about the opportunities and challenges entrepreneurs encounter when looking for startup capital. The program also featured Dan Brawley, CEO of the Cucalorus Film Festival and Christine Hughes, senior planner for the city of Wilmington.
After hearing an overview of Cape Fear Community College’s marine tech and marine bioscience programs, the group was whisked across the bridge to visit Manufacturing Methods, a fast-growing machining and fabrication business in Leland Industrial Park. The company uses lean manufacturing methods and is producing a range of products, from high-tech dental supplies to large moveable structures.
The company, while not involved in life sciences or biotechnology, is an excellent example of innovation at work, Vidmar said, and is working closely with Brunswick Community College to train high-tech machinists.
The InnovateNC group ended its tour at BCC’s Leland Center, where visitors viewed the college’s brand-new incubator space and heard about BCC’s aquaculture program.
“This is a very good initiative. When you talk innovation in North Carolina, the tendency is to talk only about the Research Triangle area,” said Bruce Mancinelli, a business consultant and member of the BCC incubator’s advisory Success Team. “It’s only right for all cities to be able to present themselves. I think we’ll get out-of-state exposure.”
Johnson, reached for comment Tuesday, agreed with Vidmar that Wilmington’s InnovateNC focus needs to become broader, not because marine biotech is narrow and hard to fathom, he said, but because it is relatively well supported and Johnson believes the local focus should be on building an ecosystem to support all kinds of entrepreneurship.
“We need to focus on sectors that need more support – for instance, information technology, programming and app building,” he said, explaining that these fields do not have “solid support” in the Wilmington region.
Johnson said, however, that the foundation for an entrepreneurial ecosystem is present in Wilmington, but that it can be strengthened, especially in getting entrepreneurs connected with investors.
In addition to Wilmington and Wilson, the other communities selected for the two-year InnovateNC program are Asheville, Greensboro and Pembroke.