The Kauffman Foundation (for entrepreneurship) promotes the figure that 70 percent of small businesses fail in their first three to five years due to fundamental mistakes and flaws in their earliest days. The same foundation claims that 70 percent of small businesses that go through a business plan program succeed.
This is why the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at UNC Wilmington could be important to the future of the Wilmington economy. What if we could change those numbers so more companies can survive, and better yet, thrive and become large employers in our region?
While Next Glass started at almost the same time as the CIE, we are working to ensure they are not the “unicorn” that shows early success, for an accelerator tenant, that other companies are unable to duplicate. (To be clear, nCino is also a very successful startup with experienced management in Wilmington but was started previous to and outside of the CIE. nCino employs Jonathon Rowe, the previous director of the entrepreneurship center.)
As I have said many times since moving here in the spring of 2013, I inherited a startup farm but did not know what had been planted and what was going to come out of the ground. As an outsider, of course I had heard of the homegrown success of PPD. We often talk about the very different needs of entrepreneurs of emerging growth companies and the needs of small business owners who serve the local community. A different set of resources are needed if you are talking to the next Bill Gates who plans to build the next Microsoft, which has created more than 12,000 millionaires in Seattle, or the locally focused mom-and-pop services business.
If we talk about “economic gardening,” was our startup farm going to produce corn, blueberries, apples or carrots? In other words, what kinds of entrepreneurs were going to come out of the ground? Before the CIE could have a business plan, or a menu, we had to learn what ingredients (what kind of entrepreneurs and small businesses) we had to work with.
After 15 months and a ton of hard work, long hours and working weekends, we have a better sense of what we are working with in Wilmington’s fledgling startup community. And now we have a more complete understanding about what is needed.
We have varying levels of experience within our lineup of aspiring entrepreneurs. Some are still young UNC Wilmington students who our city wants to keep in the region. Some are military veterans who may also be students. Some are faculty and staff at UNC Wilmington with ideas for new technology that can transferred or commercialized, a current topic of interest with Governor McCrory. We also have community-based entrepreneurs, not related to the university, who moved here for our quality of place.
So with that understanding, we are now working on starting an “Entrepreneur Boot Camp” or a three-month process to create a baseline understanding of the business planning and growth process. By using community-based mentors and local and regional executives, we can walk the entrepreneurs through the process of scaling up a business and preventing those fundamental mistakes that kill 70 percent of all startups. The entrepreneurs pay a minimal fee for this boot camp to make sure they have some skin in the game and see some value in the process. We are thankful to the management of Live Oak Bank, the owner of Apple Annie’s Bakery, and the owner of Full Scale Solutions who have agreed to cover the costs of the boot camp for a few military veterans and for some of the books they will need, such as “Lean Startup” by Eric Reis, “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore, and others.
We also have started the new High Tide Breakfast Series. This has become a regular Wednesday morning coffee-and-muffins kind of meeting that allows two local startups to give six-minute presentations on their value propositions and to reach out to the community for assistance with introductions to potential clients and angel investors. We also invite one mentor to each event to discuss their professional experience and how they may be able to play a role within the new startup community. Our program is similar to the One Million Cups groups that meet around the country, an effort that also is sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation. Our group added the coastal theme and mentors. Indeed, one of the strengths of the Wilmington market is the number of retired business executives who live here.
The CIE also will be working within the life sciences industry in our area. North Carolina is the third-largest state for life sciences and biotech, but its coastal presence is mostly in clinical research with companies such as PPD, AAI Pharma and Modoc. The Garner Report recently highlighted that life sciences/marine sciences is one of the potential growth clusters in our region. We have arranged for more than a dozen local life sciences startups to participate in a “Life Sciences in Wilmington” event on February 26 at the new MARBIONC building at UNC Wilmington. For more life sciences growth, these companies need funding. This funding can come in three forms: grants, clients and investors. With the recent grant funding of Seatox, Wilmington can help more startups understand the SBIR/STTR grant process. With the upcoming CED Life Sciences Conference in Raleigh, we can introduce our startups to potential corporate clients and corporate investors from bigger markets. To find more investors, we have to better prepare our life science startups on what these investors are looking for in an expensive, 10-year to 12-year process of building a successful life sciences company.
So after the first 15 months of opening the CIE and building on the previous leadership of Rowe and Fran Scarlett, we will continue to add to our resources to have a positive impact on the Wilmington economy. We now have 37 companies and organizations in our facility and we average 85 to 115 people at each of our events, with standing-room only crowds. We now have the second-highest average attendance at our events of all the entrepreneur organizations in the state. We also want to continue the "coastal corridor" of relationships we have been building by bringing Raleigh-Durham business leaders to our entrepreneur facility.
In our first year, one of our clients, Next Glass, was chosen by the Wall Street Journal for an exclusive top-level business event and became the No. 1 new app in the iTunes store. After pushing our startups to apply, five Wilmington companies were chosen for the South’s largest and oldest venture capital conference. Of the 10 startups selected by the North Carolina Technology Association for its 2014 "North Carolina Startups to Watch" list, three were in Wilmington. Two of our tenants were highlighted this year by the Washington Post, Easy Vote Solutions and FaceMyAge.com. The CIE was chosen by the Small Business Administration from more than 800 applicants as one of the top 50 accelerators in the country. We also held the only venture capital conference in North Carolina outside of Raleigh/Durham with more than 300 attendees and an impressive speaker lineup, including the executive director of the well-known South by Southwest Interactive Festival.
For proof of the growth of the local startup ecosystem, we are going to allow our CIE tenants to write most of our future Insights articles. Of course, you are always welcome to participate in a High Tide Breakfast on Wednesday mornings or to attend our events, normally on the third Thursday of the month at 803 S. College Road.
Jim R. Roberts is the executive director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UNC Wilmington. CIE is an accelerator for the startup community to help diversify the local economy with innovative companies that will pay higher wages. CIE is Jim’s fourth entrepreneurship organization within North Carolina and he is a former employee of the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
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