Q&A with Jim Roberts, Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington

CarolinaTechNews Q&A sessions support our mission to solicit engaging content from a wide variety of businesses and organizations to build a stronger innovation community in North Carolina, South Carolina, and the surrounding region and contribute to economic growth. Today we speak with Wilmington, N.C. entrepreneur and innovation advocate Jim Roberts (@redspireUSNC), formerly of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He will be hosting an entrepreneurial showcase tonight at Ironclad Brewery in Wilmington.

Q:  What have you been doing since leaving UNCW CIE? 

A: I have been hosting the same kinds of startup events I have been doing for the last 15 years. Events that try to help put more cash in the hands of entrepreneurs so they can grow and hire. We have had four events and about to have our fifth on Tuesday. I have been working to attract a private facility so I can continue my daily work with the entrepreneurs.

Q: Why are you dedicating yourself to promoting the innovation community in Wilmington?

A: I have worked in most of the regions in North Carolina (Charlotte, Asheville, Durham and now Wilmington), and the Raleigh / Durham area has plenty of competition and resources. I think Wilmington is a place where entrepreneurs and Tech talent WANT to live. The beach has quality of place. I am working to add quality of life aspects to help people make more money so they can thrive and afford coastal living. Over the last two and a half years, many people have mentioned that they always thought Wilmington had the opportunity to have a tech and startup scene. I am working to fill the gaps to help by opening doors of opportunity with the contacts I have throughout the southeast. I have worked in the other cities and I probably left too early to see the real harvest or outcomes of the hard work.

Q: How did you come about selecting Ironclad Brewery to host your entrepreneurship events?

A: Jeremy Tomlinson of Port City Brew Bus and Enfuse Technologies was one of my tenants of the Center. And he introduced me to Ted Coughlin before I left the Center. Ted is a great guy, serial entrepreneur and always hated when facilities charged him for food ,drinks and also for facility rental. So Ted has a beautiful large brewery and offers the space for free for business events that help the community. He is smart enough to know that entrepreneurs like beer. He sells a ton of beer at our events so he makes some profit there too.

Q: Describe the typical brewery/innovation event.

A: We strive to deliver value and unique introductions to resources for the startups in the Wilmington region. The business events with local speakers has been done for over a decade in Wilmington. I strive to bring new speakers mostly from Raleigh / Durham . Most of those speakers have a house or friends in Raleigh and if I have my events on Thursdays they love to make it a weekend. Our events start at the brewery with cold adult beverages and networking. A few announcements about upcoming events and opportunities for the startups to get involved like to apply for CED Tech Venture or NC IDEA or to apply for NC Tech Association Awards. Our events always have an agenda and a speaker. There are plenty of networking only events around town, but people tend to get over run by service providers. We try to summarize three main points made by each speaker. But the best is the networking at the end of the events as the speaker stick around to meet the new folks and well Ted sells more beer at Ironclad Brewery. People who speak at our events love to come to the coast. They love the beach, warm weather, seafood or a special hotel where they have a history. Our events are around finding capital, selling more product or going after available grants for for profit companies. SBIR grants are a big deal and a big opportunity for Wilmington that has never been pushed before. It had been seven years since there had been any SBIR training before I came to Wilmington. I believe that was my 3rd event at the Center. No company from Wilmington has ever won the NC IDEA grant, and now we have three finalists for the first time and all three companies attend my events.

Q: What is your take on the Wilmington innovation community?

A: We have a lot of work to do. We are thirty years behind the history of Raleigh / Durham and the impact of CED and the three tier one research universities. The key is not to compete with Durham but to cooperate with the available resources, learn from what works and tweek to make it fit the Wilmington culture. Raleigh / Durham has the thirty years of startups, some who have exited profitably, they can become serial entrepreneurs, angel investors and venture capitalists who can invest locally in some of their former employees who want to become entrepreneurs. Wilmington has two real strengths; Quality of place at the beach and a high number of retired executives (not necessarily retired entrepreneurs) who can mentor the startups. We hope these mentors will begin to open doors to their contacts but we have not seen much of that yet. It takes a little longer in Wilmington to build trust where people will open doors. This will be crucial to the success. A trusted referral is so much better than a cold call.

The Center had real momentum when I was there with 42 companies (mix of students, tech transfer and community based entrepreneurs). The center had just helped three companies raise $4.9 million dollars through a variety of efforts. It averaged 85-115 people registered per event with standing room only crowds for our events. And other cities were contacting me about our methods to gain such progress. We were achieving the very goals I was hired to pursue, including reducing the brain drain of the students after graduation who moved to other cities for better paying jobs, raising the profile of the Wilmington startup community, and becoming the second best place in North Carolina to be a startup entrepreneur.

Students were being hired by the startups such as NextGlass and Elite Innovations for full time jobs and internships, and the profile has certainly been raised by companies like NextGlass, nCino, Surgilum, EasyVoteSolutions, Xili Mobile, PocketPalz, Petrics, Elite Innovations and SpeedFaces. And if you track the validation of the startups , this is beginning to happen. Funding of startups is at an all time high since Wilmington has never really had a startup ecosystem according to locals. nCino being funded by SalesForce Ventures was big. They were listed in the Forbes 100 most promising and the only company from North Carolina. NextGlass being number 1 App in Apple Store after the HUGE Wall Street Journal event. EasyVote Solutions raised money from a Super Angel, Xili Mobile Raised money, Cape Fear Commerce raised capital.

If you look at the number of startups from Wilmington accepted into CED Tech Venture Conference with National Speed on stage, three finalists in the NC IDEA Grants and many finalists and winners at the NC Technology Association Awards. nCino and NextGlass were on stage last year and gave two great presentations that really made an impression. The buzz about Wilmington is growing and is being noticed when I walk the halls of CED and people ask me about what is going on. Or when Wilmington startups are called on stage after winning NCTA pitch contests and annual awards. Two new startups are among the Top Ten Startups to Watch in the Nov 12 Awards for NCTA.

Q: What does the future hold for your brewery/innovation events?

A: I have formalized my events into an entrepreneur support organization called NEW, Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington. I have a few annual sponsors who are people who benefit from a growing economy such as lawyers and accountants like Adam Shay CPA. Adam loves Wilmington and specializes in working with startups and small businesses. This is the same concept on how CED got started in Durham.

I have also formalized a new Angel Investor Network called WALE, Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs. We saw our entrepreneurs struggle to raise money at the earliest stages. And if it is that difficult, it is always tempting for the startup to move to another city with more readily available resources. We hope to be able to raise some capital for these startups and syndicate our deals with a new partnership with an established group of 12 angel networks and funds in Tennessee and throughout the southeast. If we raise $50,000 for one of our startups, the startup becomes eligible to present to the other twelve.

We hope to be the first money in and then help the entrepreneur to continue to grow and be attractive to the Wilmington Investor Network and other individual angels in the region. Through 15 years of networking, I have positive relationships with most of the venture capital funds in North Carolina and the Southeast.

WALE has already hosted two events and already led to some investments which is a GREAT start and that helps the startups buy into the action, not just the words of a supportive angel network within the community.