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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

The WilmingtonBiz 100: The Innovators

By Staff Reports, posted Dec 16, 2022

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


Chris Babcock

CEO, Apiture

The Wilmington-based fintech company has experienced significant growth since Chris Babcock joined in 2019. Babcock leads the company of about 300 employees.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: 

In 2022, Apiture launched the Apiture Digital Banking Platform after Babcock recognized the opportunity to combine Apiture’s two products to avoid duplication and help differentiate the business’s products. 

The company combined Apiture Xpress and Apiture Open, which provide web and mobile consumer banking, business banking, digital account opening, API banking for interaction between banks and tech companies and data intelligence. 

The company serves more than 300 clients in the U.S. 

This platform has been recognized by awards in recent months, including Best Business Digital Banking Solutions Provider winner and Best Consumer Digital Banking Solutions Provider finalist by FinTech Futures Banking Tech Awards USA, and more. 

In July, Babcock spearheaded a $29 million fundraising round, bringing the total funding raised by Apiture to $69 million since its inception in 2017. Officials said they would use this investment in part to accelerate product development. In 2022, Babcock continues to drive the company’s growth with investments in sales and marketing along with research and development.

LOCAL BASE: About 40% of the company’s employees are based in its Wilmington headquarters.


Ulku Clark

Director, UNCW Center for Cyber Defense Education

Ulku Clark has published over 30 research articles in the past 15 years. In addition to being a director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington center, Clark is also an information systems professor. Her research interests include information communications technologies, telecom policy, information security, IT productivity, health care IT and more.
 
Why she’s an innovator: Clark delves in the world of cybersecurity, which has seen recent growth for its importance protecting computer networks, devices and data from unauthorized access. 

Clark is a founding member of the Center for Cyber Defense Education, which has received funding and also helped start a new bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity at UNCW. 

In 2022, Clark helped bring more than $500,000 in federal grants to UNCW to develop cybersecurity programs. Clark was also a leader in hosting the fourth annual Cybersecurity Conference in October, which brought in nationwide and local experts and had a focus on informing the local business community on ways to protect their business operations through cybersecurity. The event included a number of tracks focused on small- and medium-sized businesses, and to serve local industries, it included fintech and maritime security.

INVOLVEMENTS: Founder and chair of UNCW Cybersecurity Advisory Board


Ben Currin & Dave Sweyer

CEO & Founder, Vantaca

Under Ben Currin and Dave Sweyer’s leadership, Vantaca has emerged in the past few years as a leading tech company in the region. In 2021, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) awarded to Vantaca, which would more than double its workforce with a $5 million expansion.

Why they’re innovators: As leaders of the software-as-a-service company, Currin and Sweyer have overseen the company’s growth in the past year, which includes adding over 70 jobs in 2022. 

This year, the company has completed several funding initiatives. In February, the company received $5 million in an angel-led capital raise. In September, it received an undisclosed amount from JMI Equity described as a strategic growth investment that the company will use to significantly accelerate its growth, invest in talent and develop product innovations. 

This year, Vantaca was recognized by Inc. 5000, as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the country, with Vantaca ranked as one of the top software companies in North Carolina. Currin and Sweyer are committed to growing the company locally and supporting local jobs with UNCW alumni making up one-third of its employees.

2022 LAUNCH: Vantaca Vision industry conference


Kirk Englebright

President & CEO, Dark Horse Studios  
 
Businessman Kirk Englebright launched a new venture in 2020, Dark Horse Studios, to introduce new sound stage space to the Wilmington market. 
 
WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: Dark Horse Studios plans to construct a $20 million new studio facility, introducing two new sound stages to the area, with the goal of opening in 2023. The construction of new large-scale studio space hasn’t happened in the Wilmington area since EUE/Screen Gems added its 10th stage in around 2010.
 
In early 2020, Englebright upgraded the space he bought off Market Street to host three sound stages. He initially purchased the building for a health care-related purpose, but after he received calls from studio executives eager to find space in the post-pandemic film boom the region was experiencing, he decided to switch gears. The 80,000 square feet of sound stage space and office area have aided a variety of filmmakers. Dark Horse Studios’ website lists productions including Florida ManWelcome to FlatchOur Kind of PeopleGeorge & TammyAlong for the Ride and more as its previous clientele. 
 
MATTRESS MAN: Englebright previously spent 17 years as founder and president of Mattress Capital and has experience owning other Wilmington-area retail businesses, including A Goodnight Sleepstore and Wilmington Furniture & Mattress Co.

Correction: This version has been updated to correct the number of sound stages Dark Horse plans to build. The incorrect number appeared in the print version of the article.

Todd Godbey

CEO, Beacon Education
 
Todd Godbey was tapped in 2015 to oversee the development of GLOW Academy as leader of Beacon Education (formerly GLOW NC), the nonprofit foundation that supports the all-girls charter school. 
 
WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: Godbey helped bring the idea for GLOW Academy to life with a new way to serve students who, data shows, are more likely to slip through the cracks in traditional school settings. The mission for GLOW, which was the first single-gender charter school in the state, was to provide academic opportunities for young women from low-income families in an environment tailored to increase their likelihood of success. 
 
This school year, Godbey’s work overseeing operations at the school has taken on a special meaning as GLOW prepares to graduate its first class since the school opened in 2016. 
 
Godbey is also currently overseeing the organization’s work to expand their offerings to include SPARK Academy, with the first of up to five early childhood development centers slated to open in August 2023. The schools, which will introduce hundreds of openings in a tight local market for child care, plan to serve diverse mixed-income families with scholarships available to those who need them. 
 
Plans are for SPARK to be followed by a co-ed elementary school as well as an all-boys charter middle and high school similar to GLOW.
 
NURTURING THE WHOLE CHILD: Plans are underway to equip GLOW with a community health care clinic, staffed daily by a mental health professional with weekly time from a physician assistant. Beacon’s other schools will also include community health clinics.

Ken Halanych

Executive Director, UNCW Center for Marine Science

Ken Halanych became head of the university’s Center for Marine Science (CMS) last fall.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: 

In his role, Halanych oversees programs and facilities housed in the CMS, including MARBIONC, the Shellfish Research Hatchery and finfish mariculture program.

CMS-related activities have included additional grant-funded projects and research.

A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of nearly $1 million is funding research by a UNCW team, including CMS members, to look at sea sponges’ role in coral reef health.

The NSF also is funding an unoccupied aerial system (UAS) Coastal Observatory that will be housed in the MARBIONC labs. Supported by a nearly $851,000 Major Research Instrumentation Grant, the observatory will consist of three commercial drone platforms with remote sensors and other instrumentation to study the coastal ecosystem.  

COMMUNITY CONNECTION: The center this fall held an open house to show its facilities and examples of research being done out of it.


Wayne Hippo

Owner, PS Solutions

With a background in law, Wayne Hippo co-founded PS Solutions in 2018. The company provides custom software solutions for small businesses, and while it is headquartered in Pennsylvania, it has a large presence in Wilmington, which provides the company’s biggest market and makes up its second-largest team.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: As the founder and leader of PS Solutions, Hippo is responsible for the company’s brand development and expansion of business development opportunities. 

PS Solutions provides innovative software solutions to businesses with three development centers in the U.S. PS Solutions is one of few area companies that provides software solutions to businesses which range from full-scale enterprise software development projects to developing mobile apps and creating client web portals. 

Since opening a Wilmington office, Hippo has led the expansion in the region. He also co-founded employee engagement mobile application WorkTok with Lisa Leath. In 2022, PS Solutions partnered with WorkTok to develop CyberTok, a tool within WorkTok that provides resources and education on cybersecurity. 

Hippo has also led initiatives to expand STEM opportunities for women and minorities in software development. Hippo is part of a private collaborative with the goal to identify ways to increase the untapped talent pool of local workers and expand the pipeline of technology workers into the region.

POLITICAL BACKGROUND: Hippo previously served as mayor, vice mayor and councilman in the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania, between 1997 and 2010.


Keith Holden

CEO, FOCUS Broadband

Keith Holden has served as CEO and general manager of FOCUS Broadband (formerly Atlantic Telephone Membership Corp, or ATMC) since he received a promotion in 2018. A native of Brunswick County, Holden has been employed at the member-owned, telecommunications cooperative since 1998.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: As FOCUS Broadband’s leader, Holden has re-examined the company’s services to keep up with changing technologies. 

Starting in 2022, Holden has been leading the company’s rebranding effort, which has the goal to reflect the company’s evolution since it was founded in 1955 and its business change from a traditional telephone and cable TV provider to one that specializes in delivering fiber optic, high-speed internet. 

From 2019 to 2022, Holden has led a project team that secured over $103 million in funding through 16 N.C. Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants and three USDA ReConnect grants. These grants help the company expand fiber optic broadband to over 30,000 rural addresses in Eastern North Carolina. Holden also oversees multiple construction projects including building fiber-to-home networks to provide broadband to unserved areas of Bladen, Brunswick, Chowan, Columbus, Duplin, Hoke, Pender, Perquimans, Robeson and Scotland counties. 

SPEEDING UP: FOCUS Broadband is also in the process of building a $100 million fiber optic upgrade project for Brunswick County that will provide multi-gigabit broadband internet to over 60,000 locations.


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 1,000 employees.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: Besides being head of the practice, James also has a hand in other projects Wilmington Health is expanding into.

He supported the physician leaders in the development of WH Research, which according to Wilmington Health, to date conducts the highest volume of local research studies in the community. Many of the studies directly supported the rapid deployment of the COVID-19 vaccines. 

He also developed Innovo Research, a provider-sponsored, provider-led network of high-performing Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) that utilize clinical research as part of their population health strategy.

With its most recent Innovo Research expansion, several new states were added, and Innovo now has potentially 400 more clinical research sites serving over 4 million patients and with more than 2,000 providers in the research network. 

On the local patient care side, Wilmington Health has expanded into additional locations in Brunswick and Onslow counties, as well as increased its number of specialties in the area, such as with its Women’s Center of Excellence. 

OUTPATIENT SURGERY: Wilmington Health’s Ambulatory Surgery Center opened in the spring on Glen Meade Road.


Tracey & Girard Newkirk 

Co-founders, Genesis Block

Husband-and-wife team Girard and Tracey Newkirk were both entrepreneurs before starting Genesis Block in 2019. The incubator provides business development services supporting small business owners, entrepreneurs and early-stage startups. Genesis has a special focus on supporting ventures led by minorities and women.

WHY THEY’RE INNOVATORS: This year brought changes to Genesis Block, including a move to another office location in downtown Wilmington that marked the organization’s transition away from offering coworking, meeting rooms and event spaces as its service offerings. 

Now, housed at coworking space Common Desk, Genesis is launching Genesis Block Academy, Block Eatz and Genesis Bridge/DiCE. The Academy provides curriculum-based training programs for early-stage startups, entrepreneurs, diverse-owned businesses and local small business owners. Block Eatz is an incubator kitchen launched in partnership with Cape Fear Community College in Castle Hayne that food industry entrepreneurs can use for food prep and to develop their recipes. 

This year, Genesis Block was chosen by a coalition called Diversity in Clean Energy, known as DiCE, described as an action-based coalition created by Duke Energy, to build an online platform that promotes diverse-owned businesses in the clean energy industry. The platform will serve as a tool for monitoring ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) performance and has the goal of bringing together diverse suppliers and buyers in the clean energy industry.

BRIDGEWORK: Genesis Block also spent time this year working on Genesis Bridge, an online platform to streamline the procurement process for large organizations that gives diverse, small businesses access to greater opportunities.


Shaun Olsen

Founder & CEO, CloudWyze

With a background in information technology, Shaun Olsen founded CloudWyze, an internet service provider, in 2012. Since then, the company has grown to more than 40 employees and is also a Managed Service Provider for businesses.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: In 2022, Olsen continued to lead the company’s efforts to expand high-speed internet service to underserved, rural areas of the state with the need for internet connectivity becoming more pressing in today’s digital world. 

The company was instrumental in getting a general statute passed allowing joint funding for broadband between a county government and a provider. Since then, CloudWyze has secured $30 million in grant funding for underserved North Carolina counties. This includes an announcement in October that the company is receiving about $18.4 million in grant funding to expand internet access to rural areas of the state through the 2022 Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Grant program. This funding will help CloudWyze expand its service to about 8,600 underserved and unserved homes in those counties. Currently, CloudWyze is building fiber and wireless networks in New Hanover, Nash, Harnett, Martin, Edgecombe and Johnston counties with more locations expected to start soon.

ADDITIONAL ROLE: CEO and founder of AcoustiCreations


Jose Quiros

Co-founder & CEO, F3TCH

As a self-taught app developed, Jose Quiros blended his tech skills and work experience with a large guest room telephone manufacturer to develop F3TCH, an application for the hotel industry that guests can use to talk to their hotel for services and amenities without needing to use a corded phone.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: As an innovator, Quiros has developed a software solution to enhance guest experiences at hotels and resorts. 

The application he developed provides benefits for both guests and hotels with guests being able to connect with their hotel from any location and with hotels being able to consolidate services. High-end hotels and resorts can use the platform to upsell their service and amenities and enhance their loyalty programs. 

In working to officially launch the app, Quiros has been active in the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem and has been introducing the company to potential customers and investors through pitch contests. 

In 2022, F3TCH won the Capital Connects Pitch Contest in Greensboro. The company was also chosen out of 450-plus applicants to participate in Venture Atlanta 2022 as one of the top technology companies in the Southeast.

PROJECTS MANAGEMENT: Besides F3TCH, Quiros also is working on ideas for an incubator for Wilmington, a nonprofit around the use of small urban spaces for nature and an app for travel.


Tyler Rees

Founder & CEO, Innovative Financial Group

Tyler Rees heads up Innovative Financial Group, one of the fastest-growing insurance platforms nationally.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: This year, Wilmington-based Innovative Financial Group ranked No. 78 on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in the U.S., with a three-year revenue growth spurt of 5,232%.

The company, with about 40 employees, provides a platform to insurance agents and managers to help grow their brand. 

With a national brokerage distribution of over 10,000 agents and more than 3,500 licensed Medicare agents, Innovative Financial Group assisted 13,000 clients in 2020 with navigating benefits. Last year, the company’s client base grew fourfold and will continue to this year, officials project, estimating it will help 165,000 seniors this year.


Yoursry Sayed

President & CEO, Quality Chemical Labratories

Entrepreneur Yousry Sayed is growing his company, Quality Chemical Laboratories, into new realms.

WHY HE’S AN INNOVATOR: Undergoing a significant expansion, Sayed’s Quality Chemical Laboratories will soon officially welcome its sister company, Pyramid Pharmaceuticals, next door to its facility off Interstate 40. 

Sayed started Quality Chemical Laboratories (QCL) in 1998 with just a handful of employees. The contract research, testing and prototyping firm has since grown to a team of about 250. Amid a $110 million expansion, the new facility calls for the addition of about 180 new employees.  

Through the venture, Sayed – who has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Minnesota – has been developing original pharmaceutical products on the Food and Drug Administration’s shortage list. One product he has developed over several years is about one year from federal approval, according to Sayed. Though the company started in 2005, Pyramid Pharmaceuticals’ formal public launch will take place in the next couple of years, following the completion of the new facility. This facility will be capable of manufacturing drugs, and eventually, will produce original products.

ONCE A SEAHAWK: Before founding QCL, Sayed was a professor in UNCW’s chemistry and biochemistry department and served as director of the general college. He currently serves on the UNCW Board of Trustees.  


Natalie Waggett

CEO, Ohanafy

Natalie Waggett has 20 years of experience in banking and finance. She then made a transition to the tech industry by joining fintech company nCino. There she worked in presales and sales enablement for eight years. In 2022, she launched a software firm that arose out of her experience in banking and technology.

WHY SHE’S AN INNOVATOR: This year, Waggett and a team at Ohanafy, developed a software product for the adult beverage industry, specifically breweries. 

As an investor in a small brewery, Waggett saw how many small business owners lack the functionality they need to be successful. 

The Ohanafy Brewery Management System is an end-to-end craft beverage management software. Housed within Salesforce, the platform is designed to be used by anyone employed at a brewery, with a price based on beer production as opposed to the usual software-as-a-service model pricing. The platform includes tools to manage several aspects of running a beverage business from production to sales to employee management. 

With an innovative solution for breweries, Waggett said her goal is to empower independent brewers, distillers and other craft beverage manufacturers with software that helps them with business management and growth.

IN A NAME: For the startup, their company name loosely means to create family, playing off ohana, the Hawaiian word for family.


Read more about the 2022 WilmingtonBiz 100 honorees by clicking here.

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