WilmingtonBiz Magazine

The WilmingtonBiz 100: The Innovators

By Staff Reports, posted Dec 17, 2021

The Innovators – The disruptors shaking things up and getting the region to see things in a different way

Neal Andrew

President, Andrew Consulting Engineers PC
Neal Andrew’s firm works in structural, marine and forensic engineering as well as overall project management. It was created by himself and John Andrew in 2004.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Andrew Consulting served as the consulting engineer for the Battleship North Carolina’s walkway and cofferdam projects as well as on the design and engineering team for the hull repairs of the ship.
They received multiple awards for that cofferdam and memorial walkway structural design. The complicated project included building a structure around the memorial ship so that Cape Fear River water could be drained away to make much-needed repairs to the ship’s hull. The hull’s final repairs took place this year.
Other current projects include damage repairs from Hurricane Isaias on the Oak Island Pier, a bulkhead replacement for Bradley Creek Yacht Club and hurricane damage investigation at the Southport Marina.
Board leader: Andrew will become chair of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce board next year. He also is serving a four-year term with the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, which prepares and adopts rules that govern development in the state’s 20 coastal counties.
Andrew is vice-chair of the Wilmington/NHC Port, Waterway & Beach Commission, vice president of and a member of the UNCW Coastal

Chris Andrews

President, Cool Wilmington Productions
Chris Andrews founded Cool Wilmington, which has been producing events in Wilmington for the past 15 years, including the annual Rims on the River, a vintage car show in downtown Wilmington. One goal of the company is to draw people to the downtown area to promote businesses. Cool Wilmington provides event management, marketing strategies, graphic design, web design and social media marketing.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Many events gathering large crowds of people were canceled during the pandemic, but Cool Wilmington was able to bounce back this year as restrictions were lifted and more people were vaccinated. Andrews led the event management company that was responsible for overseeing Downtown Alive, an initiative to expand restaurants and retailers in downtown Wilmington with outdoor space. This year, the company has hosted the Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day Parade & Festival in September, the Downtown Wilmington Wine & Beer Walk, Rims on the River, American Craft Walk and Downtown Wilmington Holiday Tree Lighting, plus three new events: Really Cool Stuff, Veg Out Health & Wellness Festival and Really Cool Stuff Marketplace & Social Gathering. It has also hosted the Riverfront Farmers Market from March to November.
Fun fact: Andrews is a motorcycle and hot rod enthusiast.

Ash Aziz

Owner, Circa Restaurant Group
Since moving to Wilmington 23 years ago, restaurateur Ash Aziz has opened more than 16 restaurants, with current plans to open more.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Aziz plans in 2022 to open Origin Food and Drink at Autumn Hall and Raw 32, an oyster bar, off Military Cutoff Road.
Origin is expected to serve “the best regional ingredients, fresh local fish, farmers market produce, a creative seasonal menu and wines from around the world,” Aziz said in March.
Reflecting on Circa 1922, his restaurant in downtown Wilmington, Aziz said recently that the fine-dining restaurant “has been one of those unique gems that has enjoyed 22 years of serving this community.”
In addition to Circa 22, Aziz owns and operates Pizzeria Il Forno at The Pointe at Barclay in midtown Wilmington.
On accomplishing goals: “Many years ago I wanted to be part of making Wilmington a dining destination, and I believe this community of great chefs and restaurateurs has done just that,” Aziz said. “When I came to Wilmington it was a means of a career, and in a very short time, opening these restaurants became a passion.”

Chris Babcock

CEO, Apiture
Chris Babcock joined Wilmington-based Apiture in 2019 as chief technology officer. He was named CEO shortly afterward and leads Apiture’s team that numbers more than 300 employees and serves about 350 financial institutions in the U.S. with the fintech’s API-first digital banking technology.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Apiture itself is an innovator, developing technologies for financial institutions that streamline digital processes and improve customers’ online banking experiences. The company’s two basic platforms are enhanced by partnerships it has formed with complementary tech providers.
Apiture, established in Wilmington in 2017 as a joint venture between Live Oak Bank and Atlanta-based First Data Corp., has proved an essential partner to digital banking initiatives. Under Babcock’s leadership it recently worked with Live Oak Bank to launch the bank’s new consumer banking platform and announced the launch of First Horizon Bank’s digital-only brand, Virtual Bank, in late summer. Apiture has rolled out significant enhancements to its current customers throughout the year, including a newly designed mobile banking experience.

Christian Cardamone

Broker, Aloha Real Estate & Keller Williams Innovate
Christian Cardamone is a Wilmington-based broker, general contractor and property manager.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Cardamone has recently been developing personal real estate holdings inside the fast-growing neighborhood The Cargo District, alongside the primary developer’s properties there. The district is along the corners of 16th and Queen streets.
In The Cargo District, Cardamone is an owner-partner of Coworx, a collaborative coworking space, and DSWX-Design Worxs Warehouse, a multi-tenant small business community of artisans and artists.
In addition to his work with The Cargo District, Cardamone led the renovation of the historical downtown properties at 102 and 104 Orange St. and 202/204 Princess St.
As owner of Aloha Wilmington Real Estate, Cardamone manages a large portfolio of commercial and residential properties in the greater Wilmington area. He also leads the Christian Cardamone Team at Keller Williams Innovate.
Scene setter: Cardamone has sold or leased more than 20 bars and restaurants in downtown Wilmington.

Ben Currin

CEO, Vantaca
Ben Currin joined Vantaca in 2018 with a role in project management, becoming COO in 2019 and CEO in 2020.
Why he’s an Innovator:
As CEO, Currin has supported the growth of the company from an early startup to 100 employees at the cloud-based, software-as-a-service firm that works with association management companies.
In September, the company announced it will double its workforce as it launches a $5 million expansion. For this growth, the company will receive incentives from the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County as well as support from the state’s Job Development Investment Grant.
According to a press release from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, average annual salaries for the new jobs will be more than $80,000, creating a potential annual payroll impact of more than $8.3 million.
With this growth, Vantaca, along with other fintech companies, has highlighted the Wilmington region as a technology hub in the southeast. Vantaca was also named the 2021 Coastal Entrepreneur Awards winner in the technology category and recognized by the 2021 Inc. 5000 list as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Seahawk center: A third of Vantaca employees are UNCW alumni.

Nick Dyer

CEO, Catalyst Clinical Research
Before joining Catalyst Clinical Research in 2018, Nick Dyer spent his career in health care and life sciences. This includes working in the clinical research space with Quintiles and leading clinical operations, finance, IT and sales and marketing at PPD. In 2011, he joined Novella Clinical as chief commercial officer, and in 2016 he was appointed president there.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Since taking on the role of Catalyst’s CEO, Dyer has led the expansion of the contract research organization from 14 employees to more than 300 full-time employees as of 2021.
About 150 of those are in North Carolina. Dyer also influenced the buildout of the company’s independent contractor program.
The 2021 Inc. 5000 list included Catalyst as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S., ranking it as No. 934. According to Inc., Catalyst was involved in several COVID-19 and oncology studies. Led by Dyer, the company has experienced a 514% growth in the past three years, according to Inc. Its growth involves several acquisitions, including Triangle Biostatistics and Acumen Healthcare Solutions.
Dyer has also guided efforts toward building the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion. Catalyst’s executive leadership team is primarily women-led, and its workforce is 70% made up of women.

Shawn Hayes

Executive Director, Eden Village of Wilmington
With his experience in crisis response and crisis intervention, Shawn Hayes was recently named to head up Eden Village of Wilmington, a planned community of 32 tiny homes that will provide permanent housing for chronically homeless individuals.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Hayes is leading an initiative in Wilmington that aims to address the issue of homelessness. He and his team are modeling their plans for a 32-unit tiny home village on the inaugural (and successful) Eden Village in Springfield, Missouri.
Housing people who have been homeless and on the streets of Wilmington for at least a year will lessen the strain on our health care system, Hayes said, adding “Our homeless friends are often found in hospitals and emergency rooms, and after medical attention is administered, they are sent back to the streets to recover. As you can imagine, this can quickly result with several return trips, at our area taxpayers’ expense.”
The modular homes measure 400 square feet and are designed for single occupancy in the community on Kornegay Avenue. Each newly housed tenant will pay a permanent rent of $300 per month. Wrap-around social services will be available to residents.

Keith Holden

CEO & General Manager, ATMC
In 2018, Brunswick County native Keith Holden was promoted to CEO and general manager at ATMC, a member-owned cooperative providing communication services to Brunswick and Columbus counties. Holden has worked at ATMC since 1998, having served as vice president of information systems.
Why he’s an Innovator:
As CEO of ATMC, Holden has led the company’s efforts to connect underserved rural communities with new or faster internet service.
ATMC has garnered over $42 million in funding to expand fiber optic broadband to over 20,000 rural addresses in Southeastern North Carolina. ATMC currently has multiple construction projects where ATMC is building fiber-to-home networks to provide broadband to underserved areas of Robeson, Columbus, Duplin, and Pender counties.
In October, ATMC announced a multi-year, $100 million project with the goal of bringing faster internet to all its members in Brunswick County. The communications cooperative will replace all its copper and coaxial cable network within its service area with a new 100% fiber optic network. These projects will enable ATMC to be positioned to take advantage of Brunswick County’s growth in the years ahead.
Business service: ATMC provides fiber optic broadband in the International Logistics Park.

Adam Hooks

President, EMS LINQ Inc.
As president of LINQ, Adam Hooks oversees the day-to-day operations of the education software company. He became vice president of LINQ in 2000, CEO in 2018 and president in 2020.
Why he’s an Innovator:
LINQ provides products to K-12 schools that include accounting, finance and HR, meal management and state nutrition programs, school payments, registration and school websites.
During his leadership time at LINQ, the company has grown to about 400 employees nationwide serving 3,000 districts across 50 states. Over the past year, the company has grown significantly having completed six acquisitions.
In August, LINQ announced it had acquired Alio and eGrants, allowing it to expand its product offerings and streamline financial and grant management for districts. LINQ partnered with two school nutrition management software providers, including the acquisition of Colyar Technology Solutions from Arizona and a merger with TITAN School Solutions from California. The company also acquired two enterprise resource planning platforms. Overall, Hooks has overseen and integrated 10 company acquisitions in four years.
Covid adjustments: LINQ built an online rapid registration platform for schools.

Emmanuel Ibarra

Owner & Accountant, ECG Restaurant Group
The Mexican restaurant El Cerro Grande has been serving traditional family-style dishes to the Wilmington region since 1991. The business has grown from one location opened by Emmanuel Ibarra’s father, Manuel, in the former Galleria shopping center near Wrightsville Beach to three El Cerro Grande restaurants, two El Arriero Taquerias and one Zocalo Street Food and Tequila. The group also owns four restaurants in Jacksonville.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Emmanuel Ibarra has helped grow the ECG Restaurant Group started by his father to a group that now operates 10 restaurants in the Wilmington and Jacksonville regions.
The group is a family-run operation with Emmanuel Ibarra in charge of the accounting for the group and helping to manage about 400 employees total, 200 of whom are employed in Wilmington.
In 2017, Emmanuel Ibarra helped co-found Zocalo, a modern Mexican eatery that was a departure from El Cerro Grande’s traditional menu focusing on fresher and healthier options. Currently, Emmanuel Ibarra is personally looking to open more restaurants.
Community contributions: Emmanuel Ibarra is a member of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and Latin American Business Council. ECG Group also gives back to the community through WARM, Run for the Tatas and more.

Jeff James

CEO, Wilmington Health
Jeff James has served as head of Wilmington Health, the largest independent multi-specialty physician practice in the region, since 2008. It now has 1,100 employees.
Why he’s an Innovator:
James has not only developed Wilmington Health’s accountable care organization (ACO), he also implemented several other ACOs for physician groups around the country and formed one of the first national ACO collaboratives. ACOs are groups of health care providers who coordinate care for participating Medicare patients with the goal of improving outcomes because of the additional coordination and cutting down on medical costs.
He has sat on the American Medical Association’s board and participated in several national health care public policy initiatives. As a consult, he has assisted several other large physician practices in developing sustainable, long-range business models.
In 2018, James partnered with Optum to create the Optum Digital Research Network and formed Wilmington Health’s national clinical trial company, Innovo Research.
James spearheaded Wilmington Health’s efforts to develop its Medicare Advantage offering called Anchor Senior Care Advantage and he developed Wilmington Health’s soon-to-be announced commercial offering for individuals as well as large and small businesses.
Expanding services: New and recent projects include a free-standing ambulatory surgical center; the opening of a Women’s Center of Excellence; upfitting additional space in Jacksonville, Leland and Wilmington; and applying for additional medical facilities Certificates of Need for services such as MRIs and cardiac catheterizations.

Danielle Mahon

Founder & CEO, Topsail Steamer
Inspired by enjoying summer seafood cookouts growing up on the Jersey Shore, Danielle Mahon created Topsail Steamer, a ready-to-cook low country boil company. Before launching the business in 2017, Mahon worked at Procter & Gamble as a consumer sales specialist, Thermo Fisher Scientific in Laboratory Equipment Division Sales and other roles.
Why she’s an Innovator:
Under the guidance of Mahon, Topsail Steamer has grown from one location in Topsail Island to several locations including a store in Wrightsville Beach, one in Bethany Beach in Delaware, as well as three in her native New Jersey: Ocean City, Long Beach Island and Sea Isle City.
The company has also been reaching more people through a partnership with Goldbelly, a national food delivery service that allows it to ship seafood pots all over the U.S.
In 2021, Topsail Steamer was ranked one of the fastest-growing private companies in the nation by Inc. 5000, coming in at No. 594. According to Inc., the company had an 808% three-year growth. It also became the recipient of the 2021 Travelers’ Choice Award from TripAdvisor.
Mahon, who currently oversees 40 employees, was named Entrepreneur of the Year as part of the 2021 Coastal Entrepreneur Awards. Mahon also supports the local seafood industry by using fresh and local seafood from regional fishermen.
Bucket brigade: Crabby Jimbo and The Miss Emily 2 buckets are named after her son and daughter.

Brett Martin

Founder & CEO, CastleBranch
In 1997, Brett Martin founded CastleBranch, a background screening and compliance management company, which relocated to Wilmington in 2002, bringing a workforce that currently has more than 400. Martin was named Tech Exec of the year by N.C. Technology Association in 2014, and he also founded the nonprofit
Why he’s an Innovator:
According to CastleBranch, the company is a leading provider of vaccination, immunization tracking and diagnostic test tracking in the United States. During the pandemic and the subsequent vaccine rollout, CastleBranch pivoted its focus to provide COVID-19-related solutions to higher education organizations and hospitals. This includes the Real Vaccination and Waiver ID, which were launched in 2021 and includes a physical and virtual card that indicates whether a person has been vaccinated. It also launched CB COVID-19 Compliance, a test-tracking solution for COVID-19 test results that provides organizations with a detailed audit. These products preceded many of the vaccine mandates at various schools, health care organizations, event venues and more throughout the country. The company touts its status as “one of the first companies in the world” to issue a COVID-19 vaccination ID card.
35 million: Medical documents collected, reviewed and/or stored by CastleBranch

Yousry Sayed

CEO, Quality Chemical Laboratories LLC
Prior to founding Quality Chemical Laboratories in 1998, Yousry Sayed was a professor and academic administrator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s chemistry and biochemistry department. Currently, he oversees the company’s 250 employees.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Quality Chemical, which provides services to the pharmaceutical industry, has undergone several expansions over the years.
In 2021, the company announced the expansion of an 8,000-square-foot facility to support more laboratory and office space. Construction is currently underway on the two-story building on 0.6 acres at 3408 Enterprise Drive. This new building is Quality Chemical’s eighth stand-alone building in the Northchase Industrial Park and is located on a separate property about a third of a mile away from the main campus at 3220 Corporate Drive.
Previously, the company underwent a 90,000-square-foot expansion to its headquarters. With these expansions, Quality Chemical is expected to add 180 jobs over the next three years.
Sayed has been leading the local company, which hires and trains UNCW and CFCC graduates. The company also has partnerships with multiple ventures to innovate development and manufacturing processes and supports COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers through analytical testing services.
Other role: UNCW Board of Trustees member

Nicholas Smith

CEO & Founder, Geo Owl
Nicholas Smith, who started the geospatial technology solutions company in 2013, is an Army veteran who was a geospatial analyst working with satellite imagery and geospatial data. After earning a psychology degree from UNCW, Smith served in the U.S. Army Reserve and then worked as a contractor providing full-motion video analysis for BAE Systems.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Smith used his geospatial technology knowledge to launch Geo Owl. Providing a demanded service in a niche industry has allowed the Wilmington-headquartered technology company to grow as an innovative startup. Currently, the company has about 100 employees, with about 20 located in Wilmington. The company has developed Patternflows, a proprietary software that collects and distributes intelligence derived from aerial or ground-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations) and can be used for any intelligence observation.
Geo Owl’s primary client is the federal government including U.S. Special Operations Command, the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency, Army and the Marine Forces Special Operations Command, among others. This year, the company was selected by the U.S. Department of Defense out of hundreds of applications to present at the Pentagon’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office’s Global Solutions meeting, which brought together highly innovative technologies.

Dave Sweyer

Founder, Vantaca
As the founder of CAMS, a community association management company, Dave Sweyer was not able to find software for his company, so he partnered with two developers to create Vantaca in 2016. Besides founding CAMS and Vantaca, a cloud-based, software-as-a-service firm that works with association management companies, Sweyer is also owner of Sweyer Property Management.
Why he’s an Innovator:
Sweyer has cemented himself as an avid entrepreneur launching and owning a majority/controlling interest in three companies. Collectively, his efforts have employed almost 450 people, with 350 of them working in Southeastern North Carolina. According to Sweyer, CAMS is one of the leading homeowner association management companies in the industry. One of his fastest-growing companies is Vantaca, having made the 2021 Inc. 5000 fastest-growing companies list and winning the technology category at the 2021 Coastal Entrepreneur Awards. This year, Vantaca also also announced a $5 million expansion expected to include doubling its workforce. For this growth, the company received support from the state’s Job Development Investment Grant and incentives from both the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County.
Volunteering: Sweyer is vice chairman of the fundraising campaign at Boy Scouts of America Cape Fear Council.

George Taylor

CEO, TRU Colors
George Taylor is founder, chairman and CEO of Wilmington-based TRU Colors, a business and social mission he started in 2017.
Why he’s an Innovator:
This fall, the long-discussed plan for TRU Colors to begin distributing beer from its Wilmington brewery happened with a lager, TRU Light, hitting grocery store shelves in North Carolina.
The company said at the time that plans are to distribute regionally in early 2022 and nationally by 2023.
Taylor started TRU Colors as a for-profit brewery that hires Wilmington gang members and those involved in the gang community to help combat street violence and unite the community.
Earlier this year, it started working from its Greenfield Street headquarters, an overhauled space of the former Century Mills building that houses the company’s offices, brewery and areas that support the social mission and training activities for its gang-affiliated employees.
In April, Molson Coors announced it has taken a minority stake in TRU Colors.
The national beverage company would also consult with TRU Colors on distribution strategy, brewing operations, brand positioning supplier relationships and other areas to get its product out.
Taylor also has secured investments in the company from local business leaders.

Solange “Nikki” Thompson

CEO, Indochine Restaurant Group
Solange “Nikki” Thompson has been a pioneer for Asian cuisine in Wilmington for 40 years.
Why she’s an Innovator:
She created the iconic Indochine Restaurant at 7 Wayne Drive off Market Street.
“I am at my restaurants seven days a week at what seems like all hours of the day. I enjoy being involved, hearing the buzz around the restaurants and letting my team know that I am here for them,” Thompson said. “This helps me to dive into the little details that I love, which makes Indochine and my other stores not just a restaurant but a destination they (diners) can escape to for a moment and also have a great meal.”
In December 2020, Thompson opened the first location of her next concept, Indochine Express, in Monkey Junction. She plans to expand this concept in 2022 with restaurants in Porters Neck and Leland.
In April, Thompson opened Café Chinois at 3710 S. College Road in Fulton Station. This property marries Thompson’s love of delicious cuisine with beautiful artwork she has curated for many years.

Evonne & Don Varady

Co-Founders, Clean Eatz & Clean Eatz Kitchen
Evonne and Don Varady are the husband-and-wife team behind Clean Eatz and Clean Eatz Kitchen. Clean Eatz is a national restaurant and meal plan franchise based in Wilmington that was started in 2013.
Clean Eatz was inspired by Evonne Varady’s health journey and includes a cafe with build-your-own bowls, sandwiches, flatbreads, burgers and wraps, as well as snacks, smoothies and prepackaged take-home meals.
The business also includes Clean Eatz Kitchen, which prepares and delivers weight loss meal plans and meal prep to homes.
Don Varady is the CEO of Clean Eatz Franchising, while Jason Nista is the CEO of Clean Eatz Kitchen. Evonne Varady serves as president of both companies and oversees menu development for both.
Why they are Innovators: The Varadys have significantly grown the Wilmington-based Clean Eatz franchise to now 170 franchise licenses nationwide and four distribution centers across the country for Clean Eatz Kitchen.
Two of those distribution centers are located in Wilmington and employ 30-40 people between the two. This year, Clean Eatz formed a partnership with Wilmington-based KWIPPED Inc. to allow gyms, convenience stores and other businesses access to financing for refrigeration equipment needed to store prepared meals.
This partnership aims to make it easier for businesses interested in selling Clean Eatz meals, and it solves a major hurdle the company was facing when it came to expanding the distribution of its meals.
Number of employees: More than 100

Read more about the 2021 WilmingtonBiz 100 honorees by clicking here.

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