Wrightsville Beach at dusk

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When Ross Hamilton wedged his startup off the ground 10 years ago, he had to do a lot of traveling to build the network he needed to succeed. 

“Wilmington (NC) has so many advantages now,” he says, but “I’ve been doing this so long, I understand what it’s like to have no advantages.” 

Wilmington was a different place back then. The interconnections of entrepreneurs, mentors and investors hadn’t quite coalesced into the ecosystem it is fast becoming. 

“Now this town speaks my language,” Hamilton says. His Wilmington-based firm Connected Investors has become the world’s largest social network of real estate investors. 

Wilmington NC
Credit: James Willamor via Creative Commons license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
If there was any doubt that Wilmington is more than just a pretty waterfront, we hope these 10 highlights help tell a story of an entrepreneurial environment diversifying with tropical speed. 

1. InnovateNC 

In autumn 2015, Wilmington (home of tekMountain at Castle Branch) was one of five N.C. communities selected to participate in the first public-private tech initiative of its kind in the nation: InnovateNC was organized by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University along with nine other statewide partners. InnovateNC, the first public-private tech initiative of its kind in the nation, is a two-year, cross-city learning collaborative designed to leverage existing assets and create new synergies that will move North Carolina more centrally into the upper tiers of the innovation economy. 

2. North Carolina Technology Association’s Wilmington Connections 

In 2014, the NCTA awarded CastleBranch founder and CEO Brett Martin the NC Tech Award for Tech Exec of the Year, nCino for the Finance and Banking award, and singled out Next Glass and nCino among the Top 10 companies to watch—all Wilmington based. 

Then in April 2016, Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank hosted the NCTA’s second-quarter NC Tech Talk Live on Security and the Internet of Things,” combined with a networking social. Last month, four of the six startups chosen for the highly competitive Startup Showcase were Wilmington startups: 

  • Lapetus Solutions, Inc., a sci-tech growth company that combines facial analytics, biodemography and dynamic questioning to create products and services that will revolutionize the prediction of life events.
  • Petrics, a patent-pending pet-health technology platform that facilitates innovative health-tracking products, applying sensors and data to a mobile app that allows pet owners to stay ahead of pet-health issues when they arise. 
  • Likeli, makers of a social-networking system that connects and scores users’ social channels to yield meaningful, success-oriented relationships. 
  • Performance Culture, a web-based performance-management system that helps managers and employees improve through values-driven coaching and evaluation. 

3. TEDxAirlie 

Held last march in Wilmington’s historic Thalian Hall, this independently organized TED event focused on “Making Waves” that will positively transform lives within the Wilmington community. The 11 presenters included tekMountain mentors Adam Burke, a serial entrepreneur, engineer and angel investor, and Matt Magne, global principal product marketing manager for data management at SAS. 

4. UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship 

CIE provides event space for training, coworking space for early startups, low-cost office space for entrepreneurs, and experienced mentors. Ed Hall, who got his company Petrics started at the CIE, views the CIE as “a huge help to the community here.” 

The Center offers periodic presentations by highly qualified speakers at no cost. But the networking opportunities are priceless. CIE currently has 37 tenants ranging from ideation phase to established companies. 

5. WALE 

Formed in 2015 by a small group of entrepreneurs led by the tireless Jim Robertsthe Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs helps find seed money for early-stage startups, such as Petrics, to grow and hire. Roberts also puts on Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) events for entrepreneurs like the one pictured below at Ironclad Brewery.

Ironclad Brewery Startup Events in Wilmington
Ironclad Brewery of Wilmington hosts a monthly startup event featuring entrepreneurs from around the state. Credit: Jim Roberts

6. New Investors in Wilmington 

Lookout Capital is a private equity firm, based in Raleigh, that primarily invests in, manages and advises small, profitable companies in NC and the Southeast with annual revenue between $10 million and $30 million. Leveraging the capabilities of an experienced investor syndicate, Lookout focuses on companies in growing and fractured markets, in industries where they can add value, including manufacturing, packaging, services, technology and healthcare. 

Rounding out the financial picture, Wilmington is now seeing a number of financial groups enter the scene such as the Wilmington Investor Network, a private equity firm of angel investors, and Harbor Island Partners, a private equity investment partnership based in Wilmington. Together, they comprise the roots of our local startup ecosystem. Keep an eye on this sector as it continues to evolve. 

Downtown Wilmington NC
Credit: James Willamor via Creative Commons license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

7. DesignLoud 

Wilmington’s own DesignLoud, Inc. is an innovative full-service digital marketing agency and itself a local startup. It offers a range of services including full website design and development, SEO, social-media marketing, graphic design and custom content creation. 

8. Local Market Launch 

Local Market Launch specializes in helping small businesses succeed by revolutionizing the local search space. Its SaaS platform, LaunchPad, helps SMBs efficiently manage critical business data for online and mobile searches, apps and sites. This startup partners with large directories, agencies, national brands and other outlets that provide marketing solutions to local businesses. 

9. tekMountain 

Opened in 2014, a premier SENC entrepreneurial incubator-accelerator and coworking space is our own tekMountain—now with 24 member companies. tekMountain brings creatives and technologists together to scale business and synergize local resources. 

“Until tekMountain open their doors, the brightest and most accomplished business minds in Wilmington were segregated,” says Connected Investors' Hamilton, adding that “tekMountain serves as a magnet bringing together the action-takers of the area.” 

10. Talent Following the Community’s Growth 

Randy Long, CEO of Long Business Advisors (based in Wilmington), points out that you can now find virtual CFOs in Wilmington through firms like Adam Shay CPA, PLLC and CAP3 if you’re not big enough to have your own full-time CFO but need those services. 

With the success of every Live Oak Bank, Next Glass and nCino, the bar rises. Wages also begin to rise which lets Wilmington lure more specialized talent—coders, programmers, developers, startup executives—who tend to stay. 

“What Wilmington does have is quality of place,” says Roberts of WALE in an interview for Southern/alpha. “A beach and river town where people love to invite their friends to visit, our town also has a ton of retired business executives who can mentor the young startups.” 

Investors would do well to investigate Wilmington, where opportunities abound.

Photos credited to James Willamor via Creative Commons license.