In Part One, we used Accenture’s Openness, Infrastructure, and Leadership chart as a template to discuss five major U.S. tech hubs and how their respective public sectors contribute to an innovation ecosystem. Now we’d like to address how Wilmington as a city does or doesn’t fulfill some of these integral roles in expanding Southeastern NC’s tech presence.
Here’s a refresher:
Takin’ It to the Streets
First, we talked to Dr. Steve Harper, Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business. He focused mainly on Wilmington’s Accenture roles as a Regulator, Advocate, Host, and Strategist.
Harper nods to established hubs like the Triangle, Boston, and Austin, as models to use for best practices in public sector engagement with tech expansion. But he also looks to transformations in Wilmington’s own past that offer lessons in themselves.
“Getting I-40 here took two decades,” Harper says. “Elected officials, of course, got involved, but more importantly, so did private citizens and business people in getting the funding from Raleigh. Same thing with the revitalization of downtown Wilmington in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and even today — some people stepped forward and utilized the public sector.”
While such progress is oftentimes incremental at best, Harper stresses the importance of vision:
- “You have to start with a long-term-backwards approach.”
- “The real issue isn’t just 2020 plans. Basically, 2020 is already here. What about plans for 2040? The more you extend the time horizon the more you can change or even invent. What was considered impossible in the short-term can be possible in the longer-term.”
- “How do you define metropolitan? You’ve got to be very specific about it.”
-“Quality of life? Define it.”
-“Entrepreneurship? Define it.”
-“Economic development? Define it.”
And the solution, in Harper’s eyes, isn’t as simple as more businesses = mission accomplished. As excited as we might be to try out the latest ice cream shop, let’s face it — those types of businesses don’t really alter the long-term sustainability of a local economy.
Harper hopes the City of Wilmington can play a larger role in attracting:
- “high-impact businesses”
- “people with resources other than what we presently have”
- “people who have the imagination and/or vision to see what is possible and make it happen”
- “businesses that operate regionally or even nationally”
“If a business wants to relocate here, how do we shepherd the process?” Harper asks. “Can we designate one caseworker to handle that specifically, from start to finish rather than have so many governmental handoffs?”
A Penny Spent Is a Penny Earned
“We don’t have major employers like Greenville, SC, or Charleston, where they have BMW or Boeing. We are not the state capital. But if you look at what Chattanooga has done (a better comparison for Wilmington), they’ve brought in gigabit Internet and now have much improved downtown wifi.”
What Roberts is referring to is Chattanooga’s installation of a city-wide fiber-optic network:
- offering public internet that’s at least 10x faster than private broadband, but also at comparable pricing.
- started in 2008, was up-and-running by 2009
- helped to boost the local tech scene, while enticing many business relocations from afar
This type of action fulfills the Accenture roles of City as Host, Investor, Connector, and Strategist. Roberts, however, sees some roadblocks for similar strategies to be implemented in Wilmington.
“There is an awful lot of scrutiny for every penny in New Hanover County that is spent by the public sector, that is spent by the city or the county,” Roberts says.
When asked if there should be a public venture fund, Roberts said, “I don’t think any kind of funding toward entrepreneurs is going to pass those tests either. Politicians are very hesitant to pick losers and winners in the startup scene.”
Despite this, Roberts maintains a lot of optimism about Wilmington, because “within the last three years, there has been a lot of interest and a lot more momentum in the interest of entrepreneurship development as part of economic development.” Roberts cites:
- The City of Wilmington’s annual investment of $70,000 to UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE)
- The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce’s own donation to CIE
- Continual buzz from active members of the public interested in growing the economy
Roberts makes a wonderful analogy to the timetable for a city’s economic growth:
“If you were going to hire a basketball coach, do you expect him to win a national championship in a year? No. These coaches get four years to recruit talent, build their programs, then if nothing happens, they’re out. Angel investments into startups aren’t even expected to get a return in five to seven years. I’m not saying it’s never time to be held accountable. But three years is a short time.”
If You Build It, They Will Come
While investment into Wilmington’s entrepreneurial scene has been slow to develop, Dr. Craig Galbraith, Professor of Technology, Entrepreneurship, and Corporate Strategy at UNCW, suggests another important element to attracting and building a technology based community — city planning, especially the reenvisionment of streetscapes and city amenities, such as parks and bikeways. This would require Wilmington to assume the Accenture roles of Host and Strategist.
“We really need to improve our streetscapes,” Galbraith says. “From a planning perspective, the city and county haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that streetscapes are a very important part of economic development strategy, and one that is under the control of local government. Our streetscapes, digital signs, and billboards are not attractive at all — the blinky signs, the clowns [sign spinners]. Technology firms, their owners, and technical employees simply won’t move to an area that doesn’t create a high-quality and attractive image.”
Having served on city planning commissions in California and now here in Kure Beach, Galbraith has seen the “beauty is good business” approach work time and again.
“Look at the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Silicon Valley in Northern California, Sorrento Valley in San Diego, the Colorado Technology Center in Boulder,” Galbraith continues. “We need to pass strong sign ordinances and landscaping ordinances. We need to make an investment in bike paths and parks — some can be fixed, some also done by investment in amenities. This is a critical component of economic development that is often misunderstood.”
Galbraith asserts that, when traveling through any major tech hub, one notices a feel that it is much more modern, clean and attractive, and less post-industrial. And, as Wilmington continues to expand, city planners need to consider every new development as an advertisement for a more diverse economy.
What’s So Funny About a Little Peace, Love, and Understanding?
Bruce Mancinelli, Executive Coach and Mentor at Cornerstone Business Advisors, is all about collaboration — public-private partnerships, private partnerships, outreach organizations, etc. But he also believes that many of us, at least on the surface, treat cooperative measures very naively.
“Look up the word collaborate,” Mancinelli says. “The first definition everyone knows — to work together, to create greater good. But what about the second definition? To cooperate traitorously with the enemy.”
Mancinelli asserts that, in public, everybody’s holding hands, but, behind closed doors, the smack talk abounds.
“It’s a natural thing. Every organization wants to be at the forefront of the mission.”
Though only a Wilmingtonian for two years, Mancinelli is a board member for InnovateNC and has seen a problem emerge when it comes to collaboration within greater Wilmington’s tech community.
Mancinelli lists all types of enablers in a tech hub: Chambers of Commerce, cities, counties, economic development commissions, and other organizations that take on private-public play. Guess how many of these organizations are located in southeastern NC alone?
“When you have too many of these organizations, it becomes too competitive and cluttered. It’s very difficult to focus on a broader [geographic] area when there’s this public-private fragmentation.”
Mancinelli identifies two major problems to be solved in Wilmington:
How do we find the public and semi-public organizations that want to work together, and how does that achieve growth and sustain the innovation area?
What do we do about the lack of concentration in Wilmington? Most major tech hubs are state capitals or have huge universities behind them, so how do we grow a unique economic opportunity here in Wilmington?
Beyond collaboration within and across the public and private sectors, Mancinelli also wants to see collaboration across the age spectrum.
“So much of the country focuses on millennials, the tech-savvy, not so much on boomers, because they grew things old-school,” Mancinelli says.
But Mancinelli cites a recent study conducted by the Kauffman Foundation regarding the average age of entrepreneurs. The study shows that, according to the Kaufman Startup Activity Index, in the past 18 years:
- startup activity has decreased from 0.28% to 0.22% amongst millennials (221 out of every 100,000 become an entrepreneur in any given month)
- startup activity has increased from 0.34% to 0.37% amongst baby boomers (370 out of every 100,000 become an entrepreneur in any given month)
Add Gen-Xers to the mix (the age range between millennial and baby boomer), and Mancinelli wants to know how we sustain collaboration between entrepreneurial ages, because Wilmington is “rich in all three.”
Across age spectrums as well as the public and private sectors, the bottom line for Wilmington is this–we collectively need to define how innovation fits into our local economy, and what measurable steps can be taken to make it happen. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but smartphones might be replaced that quickly. We need to be realistic, but not so pragmatic that the next big thing passes us by.
If you’re interested in helping Wilmington realize its innovation ecosystem potential, contact tekMountain today.