[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series (hopefully) of periodic “Postcards” with updates from startup ecosystems across the state.]
In 2013, UNC Wilmington Chancellor Gary Miller wanted the university to take over the vacant leadership role in the Wilmington startup ecosystem. So he took an existing entrepreneur council within the business college and formed the new facility known as the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE).
In my final job interview for the Founding Executive Director position, I handed Chancellor Miller the book Startup Communities by Techstars Founder Brad Feld and said that’s what I wanted to build in Wilmington. I got the job.
We know you guys think of the beach only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That is why we made shirts at the CIE that said “#TheOther4Days“ to represent that we are more than just a weekend tourism destination. And in case you don’t believe it, here’s some evidence.
First Family of Wilmington Startups
One of the first people I met with in my new role was a fresh-faced young professional named Kurt Taylor, who had recently returned to his native Wilmington after working in investment banking in Charlotte. Though I had met several entrepreneurs in my first month, Kurt was the first one to have a Private Placement Memorandum (PPM) for his startup called NextGlass. (Now known as UnTappd, with offices in Los Angeles and New York in addition to Wilmington.) And I don’t think I have seen another PPM in the six years since. ANYWHERE !!!
Kurt’s father George and grandfather George are really pillars of the Wilmington community. George the father can only be described as a portfolio entrepreneur with multiple startups running at the same time. George had many success stories including an IPO on Wall Street with a financial software company. Six years later, Kurt’s UnTappd—a mobile-based social network for beer enthusiasts—is the fastest-growing startup in North Carolina according to the latest Inc. 5000. They employ over 100 people in a downtown headquarters in real estate owned by the Goodnight family of SAS software fame, who are Wilmington natives.
The Taylors have a need for speed in startups and in cars. The Taylors and a local, young car enthusiast have also started National Speed. Think of it as a place to upgrade the muscle under the hood while the outside of the car remains the stock car you bought off the lot of the local Cadillac dealership. Imagine software developers with a car addiction. The place is so clean but also has a treadmill for your four-wheeled baby to improve the green-light performance. National Speed has recently expanded to Richmond, Va., in a former Safeway grocery store and has very ambitious plans to expand to cities with healthy economies. I know what you are thinking, but this kind of enthusiast is eager to bulk up their car’s performance even during recessions, according to data.
Talk about ambitious plans, you haven’t heard anything yet. If you haven’t seen much of George lately, that is because he has been traveling to sexy venues like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, to tell the story of how Tru Colors Brewing has reduced gang-related violent crimes by more than 25%. The employees of Tru Colors are active gang members—that’s right, they must remain in the gangs to stay informed and help reduce the violent crimes. You can’t imagine the nationwide interest in hoping that Tru Colors succeeds in changing lives especially in places like Chicago and Atlanta. (Here’s a video of George discussing Tru Colors at Wilmington Business Journal’s Power Breakfast last January).
Live Oak Bank’s New Acorns: FinTech Unicorns
Yes, I am fully aware of the reputation of traditional banks in the startup world. But the founders of Live Oak Bank are truly different to the point that Chip Mahan was one of the founders of the first online bank in Atlanta. And no one who has ever met Neil Underwood thinks of him as a traditional banker. Live Oak’s only branch is their BEAUTIFUL headquarters hidden in the woods near the only mall in Wilmington.
Live Oak Bank’s business model is to issue SBA-backed loans to the top industries that have the highest pay-back percentages. They started with veterinarian offices but have recently expanded to vineyards and breweries. Live Oak Bank is by far the most generous in Wilmington in supporting local non-profits.
While you may not consider that world-changing from large banking institutions, around 2013 they took software that had been developed in-house and started a new company that has become nCino. I will boldly state that nCino and Pendo in Raleigh are neck and neck for the most promising startups in all of North Carolina. A recent investment from a Silicon Valley-based VC has valued nCino in the unicorn territory of a billion-dollar valuation.
But that is not all, folks. As you can imagine, Live Oak Bank gets approached about their success and how to create new partnerships. LOB has now created Live Oak Ventures and has a great portfolio of cloud-banking fintech startups including Wilmington based Apiture that already has over 100 employees. One of the leaders of Live Oak Ventures was recently recruited from Samsung Ventures and he gave an impressive presentation to a co-hosted event between Carolina Fintech Hub and my org NEW (Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington). Needless to say, the future is as bright as the summer sun over the warm sand in Wrightsville Beach.
New Spaces, New Investors, More Scaling Startups
O.K., even for Wilmington folks, it can seem hard to see stories in the local business media beyond the companies linked to Live Oak or the Taylors. I assure you the density of startups has been the major achievement of the last six years. Companies like Lapetus Solutions, Connected Investors and EasyVote Solutions have been scaling and adding employees.
- Lapetus Solutions uses their facial recognition software matched with the insurance industry leaders like AFLAC to predict longevity of their insurance clients.
- Connected Investors just “graduated” from the TekMountain coworking space into their own office space downtown. They were recently announced as the winner of the annual Coastal Entrepreneur Awards, which claimed they were like “LinkedIn for the Real Estate industry”.
- EasyVote Solutions recently received funding from Cary’s Cofounders Capital to grow their software that helps the election process for cities, counties and states.
Over the last six years, there have been additions to the Wilmington ecosystem resources such as the Ritz Carlton-style of coworking spaces with great decor (TekMountain) and VentureSouth has recently announced Wilmington as a new chapter of their syndication of Southeastern angel investor groups. VentureSouth adds to the existing angel investor groups with the Wilmington Investor Network, Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE) and the former Cape Fear IMAF Angels who were active investors in North Carolina startups like UnTappd.
So the next time you are thinking/daydreaming about the coast, please look up our startup events on our Facebook page, as we are smart enough to host events on Thursday nights so you can make it a weekend at your beach house.