If it’s true that it takes a village to raise a child, it’s also true that it takes a robust village to raise and build an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Contributing to the city’s entrepreneurial growth is the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), which this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary. CIE just completed the first of a three-year $150,000 grant ($50,000 annually) from Wilmington’s city council. The grant is helping fund entrepreneurial startups and buttress efforts to establish the Wilmington region as a global leader in the Blue Economy, defined by the World Bank as the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth.
Heather McWhorter, who is completing her first year as CIE’s executive director after serving as interim, gave a presentation July 31 to the Wilmington City Council to share the center’s economic impact and engagement results, as well as programs, during fiscal year 2023.
“We can track when we build an entrepreneur and when they move out of the region,” she said. “We can track when we help an entrepreneur, and they add jobs. Under economic impact, we saw capital raised of $25 million and 50 jobs created.
“In the engagement area, we assisted 230 entrepreneurs: 35% women, 22% minorities. We have 19 incubator tenants. We now have 190 dedicated volunteers (mentors); 700 UNCW students were engaged – about double last year; and 1,000 K-12 students, also about double fiscal year ’22. Our event attendees totaled 7,500.”
Building on an online survey conducted with feedback from UNCW faculty and students, regional entrepreneurs, volunteers and partners, CIE this year published a 2023-25 strategic plan that includes to:
- Propel entrepreneur success: “This involves our mentoring, programs, funding facilities and UNCW connections to high-impact startups,” McWhorter said.
- Support student success: “We’re thinking about the 18,000 students at UNCW, how we can empower them through entrepreneurship. Starting businesses is part of that, but so is helping create the next great employees of the region.”
- Build an entrepreneurial talent pipeline: “One example is our YEPex youth summit, engaging hundreds of high school students who participate in a Shark Tank-like competition.”
- Catalyze inclusivity in high-impact startups: “Something that I think we as a region and as a nation have a really far way to go. We’re working hard on it.”
- Advance the innovation economy: “We’re committed to advancing technology in our region, especially within the Blue Economy. Our on-site assets include 20 startup incubator offices, 16 plus coworking hot desks, two conference rooms, one event space, one podcast room and one 3D printer.”
McWhorter illustrated her presentation with descriptions of three promising entrepreneurial businesses with connections to the CIE.
“Rachelle McCray is a first-time entrepreneur who formerly worked at QVC,” McWhorter said. “She contacted CIE, having developed prototypes of smart containers that can help reduce food waste in refrigerators. She sees something bigger in the future.”
Her company, Wisely Inc., has among other grants received one of seven ReFED grants for $250,000.
Through his company OpiAID, CEO David Reeser and his team are taking on the opioid crisis through data analytics, using existing wearables (think smartwatches). “They can take that data,” he said, “crunch it and flag it if someone is going into relapse, and the app will allow contact of emergency services. OpiAID also has received funding this year, part of a $2.8 million grant, with UNCW as a partner.”
Paul Baron, this year’s Coastal Entrepreneur of the Year award winner, purchased The Wall Printer rights for North and South America. He has been called a startup machine, though he could be called an entrepreneur force multiplier. “Every time he sells a Wall Printer, the person who buys it starts a business,” McWhorter said. “He has sold 100 Wall Printers and created 100 businesses. He is also a valued mentor on the entrepreneurship board of CIE.”
CIE is not restrictive in supporting particular entrepreneurial ventures, according to McWhorter. The group’s strong commitment, however, to the Blue Economy is real. One of many examples: “Aligned with the Living Shorelines Initiative, we have a scientist in residence who is at the Center for Marine Science. We also just launched an asynchronous class for oyster growers. It’s called propelled-free for anyone in the community. It combines technical aspects of locating and operating an oyster-growing or mariculture business.”
Finally, McWhorter emphasized the center’s collaborative partners. “We’re not an island by ourselves,” she said. “All entrepreneurs take a whole team to help them get started. Wilmington is very firmly collaborative and a great entrepreneurial environment.”