Don't Stereotype Startups in Wilmington
The startup community in Wilmington is young but serious
BY LAURA BAVERMAN
Filed Under: NEWS: Startups
Construction begins this week on a shiny new Wilmington office building to house the growing team of 78 staffers running nCino, a two-year-old startup forcing change in the banking world with its cloud and mobile-based loan origination platform.
nCino's founders are bullish. Seven years ago, they created the mostly virtual Live Oak Bank and in the years to follow, designed nCino's cutting edge software to help its loan officers operate differently and more efficiently from their competitors. The men then raised $20 million—including $10 million from a Boston investor in January—to grow nCino far beyond its 40 customers today.
But the construction of a building is another kind of bet for a young company. It represents confidence, belief and a commitment that nCino will be around a long time in its hometown of Wilmington.
That kind of commitment and unabashed enthusiasm for company-building was evident at every stop on my visit to Wilmington last Friday. It quashed any stereotypes I might have had about the beach town's business prowess and left me excited for future trips back to tell the stories being created there.
One company I'll be watching is decade-old DryCorp, which is accelerating development of new waterproof protection products this year. It started as a podiatrist's effort to protect casts and prosthetic limbs from water. But since 2009, it's become a rugged consumer brand of outdoorsy products for the adventuresome. Waterproof DryCase mobile device protectors are now sold in 1,300 retail locations around the U.S. and online in 52 countries.
New products include duffel bags and backpacks, and staffers there told me 2014 would be the company's biggest year yet for new product development.
NextGlass made headlines in the state last year when it was named Emerging Company of the Year by the North Carolina Technology Association. I got a tour of the lab where 30,000 bottles of wine and 10,000 bottles of beer are being scientifically surveyed and its compounds catalogued so NextGlass's app can make wine or beer recommendations based on a person's taste.
A team of 10 scientists and developers are busy preparing for the app's June release. And 25-year-old co-founder Kurt Taylor (pictured above) told me a major grocery chain is on board to help roll out the technology within its stores.
NextGlass is an example of the type of startup incubating at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. And one man is dedicated to sharing its stories.
Jim Roberts (who I'm convinced is the most connected person in North Carolina's entrepreneurial ecosystem) is nearly a year into a gig running the center and he's already opened a new off-campus facility and recruited 16 companies to operate there. Earlier this month, he traveled to South by Southwest to brag on Wilmington. NextGlass's Taylor couldn't make the trip, but Roberts got him high-profile introductions to investors and entrepreneurs like former wine sales guru and current social media guru, Gary Vaynerchuk.
Besides NextGlass, Roberts is pretty excited about innovative facial recognition software created by a UNCW professor, which has promising applications for security and the criminal justice system (for example, predicting the way a criminal will age over time).
He also told me about a Center entrepreneur working on a patent for Redeem the Road, a new vehicle lighting system to signal when drivers are using cruise control. Another entrepreneur (a graduate student) developed an educational app rating system called Hugo Network to help teachers and parents choose the right apps for their students or children. And a company called Good Blood Flow designed a simple device for getting blood flowing to extremities while seated.
The Center has become the city's central gathering place for networking and education about building companies.
“What the Chancellor saw were plenty of organizations around Wilmington doing economic development— recruiting and existing industry expansion— but no organization was focused on startups and entrepreneurs,” Roberts said. "He wanted UNCW to be that."
Two weeks prior to my visit, UNCW approved a new $20 million investment fund to operate in tandem with the Center, with some of its future proceeds funding Center operations. Plans are for the fund (which operates separately from the university) to invest in startups in town and across the Southeast. Fundraising by the trio of experienced entrepreneurs behind the Seahawk Innovation Fund has only just begun.
As a North Carolina newbie, I'm often provided quips and insights to help me get a lay of this new land. One of those came last Friday during my visit.
In describing the entrepreneurial environment in two distinct second home communities, I was told "the Type As retire in Wilmington and the Type Bs in Asheville".
This insight isn't all that shocking, considering the coastal city's multi-million dollar beach houses often represent years of career achievement and the quirky chicken coops in many a mountain bungalow's backyard show simpler, humbler aspirations.
But Wilmington might be a bit misunderstood (Asheville too, but that's for another story). After eight hours touring startup companies and meeting with entrepreneurs in town, I wouldn't characterize the coastal town as a place for college kids to bask for four years and then return much later after raking in the dough.
My impression was instead of a burgeoning community where students, retirees, researchers, business people, marketers and college administrators are beginning to be inspired and find synergies in their various interests.
The types of companies sprouting out of all of that might be characteristically 'Type A,' but they're certainly not all ventures of seasoned veteran founders.
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