Wilmington’s tech boom: Opportunity is the magnet for the homecoming at the coast
Editor’s note: Jim R. Roberts has been working for 20 years in North Carolina with entrepreneur support organizations in Charlotte, Asheville, Durham and Wilmington. Jim is the founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW), WALE Angel Network and Rojo Octo Ecosystem Consulting. Jim also works with the SEEN Network at UNC Pembroke. Follow Jim on Twitter – @redspireusnc or @91omgbiz
WILMINGTON – If you are a native of coastal North Carolina, you know historically many people have had to leave the beaches for business opportunities in more urban cities to grow their careers.
History – In fact, in 1795 a man named Hinton James walked 157 miles from Wilmington to become the first ever student to enroll in UNC Chapel Hill. No, there has never been a “ferry” to Chapel Hill as seen in the popular Netflix show Outer Banks.
Prior to the opening of the incubator at UNCW in 2013, we heard endless stories in Wilmington of the high number of top computer graduates being hired annually by a bank with a large presence in the Raleigh area. And those talented people would never return to ever work at the coast.
Recently there was a seven day stretch of GREAT news and outcomes that are the results of the hard work done in Wilmington over the last decade and a glimpse into a bright future of the growth of the economy on the southeastern coast of North Carolina.
THE EVOLUTION OF REGIONAL ECONOMY
Now the shift has happened. It took some time but Wilmington now has a knowledge based economy in addition to the port, retirement real estate and the tourism / service economy.
Live Oak Bank has really led this evolution and the new positive trend of brain retention and brain gain. Their Wilmington headquarters and an impressive history of spinouts like nCino and joint ventures like Apiture have brought a new set of business and tech talent to the coast. Another growth from Live Oak Bank is the new and largest venture capital fund for tech / FinTech in the South. Yes, not in Atlanta, Charlotte or Miami, but this $545 million fund is based at the beach in North Carolina. Between Live Oak and nCino, these companies have hired over 500 UNC Wilmington graduates who typically moved away for career opportunities.
Of course we knew that when our local startups had successful exit events, our ecosystem would gain more regional and national notoriety. nCino had the largest opening day increase of an IPO on Nasdaq in Wall Street in the last twenty years. Homegrown UnTappd / NextGlass experienced growth from a father and son team with an idea to 125 employees at the time of their exit with a Boston private equity firm. And in a smaller deal, local startup Playerspace was acquired by Houston based Daxko.
Now there is a growth of companies expanding into Wilmington such as Litify, Grover Gaming, Vantaca and now a growing market research company called Suzy.
● Litify is a Brooklyn, NY Legal Tech company that uses the Salesforce platform and is hiring 50 new employees in Wilmington including some former nCino execs.
● Grover Gaming just had a ribbon cutting in the Cotton Exchange building on the river for their new expansion office from their HQ in Greenville, NC.
● A growing software company for the home owners association industry called Vantaca just won the Coastal Entrepreneur Awards and announced 100 jobs at $80,000 with incentives arranged by local economic developers.
● A NYC company called SUZY has had a small tech team in Wilmington for years but in October the company announced an expansion with 40 plus jobs at $ 120,000 salaries in prime downtown real estate. NBA Basketball player Kevin Durant is an angel investor in SUZY. (The lease has been signed for weeks and the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington played a role in this work.)
RANKING OF WILMINGTON AS A TOP GLOBAL ENTREPRENEUR ECOSYSTEM
In 2020, even I was shocked when Wilmington made the top 100 global emerging ecosystem ranking by Startup Genome. Wilmington was the third smallest US city on the list. This is the same category of this ecosystem ranking as the giant cities or regions like Raleigh / Durham and Charlotte.
Since three of our best companies had exit events (not raising funding anymore), I was equally shocked when not only Wilmington made the ranking again this year, but moved UP TEN SPOTS to #81 in the world. We still have much room to grow to improve our ranking for future years.
As we have reopened our live startup events in Wilmington, we have had great attendance and participation since February. We restarted events with the traditional Tough Love event, hosted the leader of Techstars Austin in June, a Lean Business Canvas workshop in July and in August we welcomed three new entrepreneurs on stage who had just moved to Wilmington from Colorado, Maryland and even from Cary, NC.
Our September event with 115 people registered to attend, hosted five investors from Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. Very rare to have that many out of town investors on the same stage just for a monthly event and not a bg venture conference. We hope to restart the annual Coastal Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference in 2021 with the help of a recent NC IDEA Ecosystem grant and sponsorship from others who want to get involved in the momentum of the Wilmington ecosystem.
THE RETURN OF UNCW GRADUATES AS ENTREPRENEURS
Maybe the most exciting thing we have seen is the return of UNCW graduates who are relocating to Wilmington as entrepreneurs or graduates who held local jobs but now have had their startup inspiration to become an entrepreneur.
We are seeing this through our consistent growth of the 1 Million Cups Wilmington chapter. Even though the events have been virtual through the pandemic, the helpful nature of the audience makes new entrepreneurs feel at home again.
Wilmington is eager to see if the employees of nCino and UnTappd have the itch to become entrepreneurs after their companies had an exit and those employees experienced the leadership of great management in those companies.
ADVOCACY, PRIDE AND PERSISTENCE WITH POSITIVE PRESS
After watching a fun show on television about small businesses on PBS / UNC TV, the end of the “Start Up” show stated, “if you would like to nominate a business, please apply on our website.”
So I nominated the city of Wilmington as a startup. Kind of…
I applied as an ecosystem leader to share several businesses from Wilmington. And I guess that is different than most applications. According to the show’s producers, their applicants are mostly just entrepreneurs hoping for some free marketing to sell their new products to a new national television audience.
I sent the producers of the START UP show on PBS a list of 25 companies in Wilmington to consider. While most of my ecosystem work is with tech and life sciences companies, the show prefers more consumer products that are more fun to show than another tech geek at a laptop.
So instead of only one Wilmington company profile because one entrepreneur applied to the show, this season will highlight FIVE small businesses from the coast. The five startups include TRU Colors Brewing, Sea Love Sea Salt, Bitty and Beau’s Coffee Shop and End of Days Distillery. These “Start Up” shows are on PBS at 4:30 PM on Tuesdays in North Carolina on UNC TV.
All of this is working together for success in Wilmington. My newsletter seems to have more readers from California than North Carolina. Entrepreneurs are relocating to the coast of North Carolina and eager to grow new jobs. The high end housing market is very hot to fill the pockets of the real estate professionals. And per capita income is rising with the salaries of these new jobs.
Not bad for the smallest county in the state. (The state of North Carolina, not Delaware for those who still get confused…)