Wilmington, NC Seal Level Startups


Southeast North Carolina’s Tech Trifecta

In the eye of the seasoned venture-capital investor, North Carolina’s Port City of Wilmington has a way to go before it’s a fully realized startup ecosystem. But the pieces are falling into place particularly across three fast-moving segments: marine & life science (including biotech), business services, and high technology. Find out what the buzz is all about with Wilmington’s sea-level startups segments.

Marine Science & Life Sciences

In its most recent biennial report, “Impact of Life Sciences in North Carolina,” the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice observed that over the past 20 years, North Carolina has emerged “as one of our nation’s top life science industry states” and that the life sciences have become “a leading advanced manufacturing and innovation driver for the state’s economy” (ix).

As of last fall, North Carolina is among the top three biotechnology states in the U.S.

Southeastern North Carolina in particular scores high marks in employment concentration in two major bioscience subsectors: research and testing, and agricultural feedstocks & chemicals. The city of Wilmington is among the MSAs in the state that are strongest “in at least one segment of life science,” according to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Earlier this month, the NCBC reported that “North Carolina’s life science jobs continue to grow at more than triple the national average, pushing the total number of people employed in the sector statewide above 70,000 for the first time.”

When it comes to marine science in SE NC, two names stand out.

  • MARBIONC (Marine Biology in North Carolina) is a R&D-based economic development program based at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s CREST Research Park. Directed by Dr. Daniel Baden, distinguished professor of marine sciences at UNCW, MARBIONC is dedicated to spurring economic development in the state by developing and marketing new products and technologies derived from living marine organisms. 
  • The NC Biotechnology Center Southeastern Office focuses on regional biotechnology economic development to strengthen the regional economy and to improve the quality of life in the region and across North Carolina, by supporting research, business, education, and strategic policy related to marine biotech, industrial biotech, renewable bioproducts/energy, and clinical research cluster development.
  • The Marine Bio-Technologies Center of Innovation, headquartered at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science Research. focuses on translating marine-related research into products and services in several areas for development: health (pharmaceuticals, biomaterials and more); energy (e.g. biofuels); aquatic food (e.g., mariculture); and diagnostics (e.g., enzymes, biochemical, etc.). The Center maintains offices in Morehead City, NC, and Research Triangle Park. A MBCOI white paper makes the case for North Carolina:     

         “As  a  powerhouse in both marine  science and biotechnology research, NC is poised  to  become a global hub for marine biotechnology in the 21st century as a natural extension and partnership between two strong drivers: 1) the state’s established biotechnology community, recently recognized as second in the nation, and 2), a  significant institutional marine science research capacity.”

In its 2014 “State Bioscience Jobs, Investments and Innovation” report, Battelle observed that North Carolina ranks as the third largest employer-state in the drugs & pharmaceuticals subsector (27) and is among the top 10 employer-states for distributors of bioscience-related products (39).

With AAIPharma Services Corp./Cambridge Major Laboratories expanding its laboratory operation and global headquarters in Wilmington as of November 2015, creating at least 37 new jobs by 2018, the region’s importance to biotech is drawing increased attention from industry, investors and entrepreneurs.

Business Services

Statewide, North Carolina is the second-largest financial center in the nation. But locally grown business-services startups outside of finance run the gamut.

  • kwipped makes it easy for businesses to locate and rent a dizzying variety of equipment — from earth-moving vehicles to laboratory devices and film-production apparatus. And it allows business owners to rent out and monetize equipment that would otherwise stand idle.
  • Forward-leaning startups like Live Oak Bank and its sibling nCino are among the most notable fintech catalysts to emerge from SE NC. Ross Hamilton, CEO of Wilmington-based Connected Investors, the largest network of investors online, notes, “Where we are today is thanks in part to tekMountain and UNCW, companies like Next Glass & nCino, Live Oak. Those organizations have been pulling so many resources into this town, now this town speaks my language. Those companies are massively important to the tech scheme in Wilmington.”
  • PerformanceCulture, based in Wilmington, provides an online, web-based, performance-management system that transforms businesses by cultivating a goal-oriented coaching culture.
  • DesignLoud is a Port City agency specializing in web and graphic design and digital marketing. Their early scale-up was modeled on offering white-label services to other firms that didn’t have the capacity to handle it themselves. Founder and CEO Derek Schmidt says, “That was the majority of our business.” Their target niche was small to mid-sized businesses, particularly medical franchises.

 High Tech

Like a genie uncorked, Next Glass emerged with a winning, innovative approach to recommending beers and wines you’ll love — a mobile app and an algorithm with a sommelier’s palate — which keeps the industry abuzz. The app is available at the iTunes App Store.

Healthcare providers can now find critical assistance through DocsInk, a software that ensures that services are billed accurately and quickly, facilitates real-time admission and discharge notifications, and improves patient care and revenue flow. DocsInk was among the many startups that used the Coastal Open Resource App Lab at UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, along with the makerspace Elite Innovations, another important component of this coastal startup segment.

Other high-tech startups native to SE NC:

  • Lapetus Life Event Solutions — Using patented facial analytics, biodemographic information, and life-event data, their insurance-underwriting platform, Chronos, takes the pain and delay out of the life-insurance application and approval process.
  • Surgilum — Creators of the medical device RoboMarker, “the world’s first self-leveling corneal marker with pre-inked, sterile, disposable tips and an integrated fixation light.”
  • Likeli — By connecting users’ many social-media channels, this mobile app is designed to leverage social data into better, more meaningful relationships.
  • Petrics — Applying metrics to pets is what Petrics is all about. This locally developed pet-feeding system is designed to solve multi-pet feeding problems, prevent pet obesity and GDV risk, and monitor your pets’ health.

A Long Way to Go

Petrics CEO Ed Hall notes the small pool of talented coders, developers and designers available in SE NC. “How do we build economy of Wilmington?” he asks. “Part of that comes down to capital. That will change over time. It is growing now. We’re starting to see more people and it’s propagating businesses like Live Oak and nCino. I hope to be one of those companies. I want to be part of that circle.”

Merrette Moore, founder and managing director of Lookout Capital, has a 15-year perspective on the venture-capital world. He notes that while Wilmington is a great community with plenty of potential as a tech hub, it’s still “one-50th the size of Raleigh-Durham — which is probably one-50th of Silicon Valley.” He says that “Wilmington has a long, long way to go before it becomes a thriving ecosystem. Success won’t be overnight. Let’s figure out what the next step is.”

tekMountain has an inside view of the major startup segments in SE NC. Find out how you can get connected.


This blog was produced by the tekMountain Team of Sean AhlumMike PattonRod WhisnerAmanda Sipes, and Zach Cioffi with lead writer Bill DiNome.

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