Staff photo by Allison Potter
Jim Roberts of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship listens in during a presentation by Andrea Cook of the NC IDEA on Wednesday, Aug. 21.
Set to officially open the doors to its new office early next month, the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has undergone some major changes since becoming a focus of chancellor Gary Miller’s administration.
“We’re running what’s called an ‘accelerator,’” said Jim Roberts, the man Miller has tapped to oversee the revamped center. “‘Incubator’ has just become a term for low-rent office space with no additional value. An accelerator is an incubator plus capital, and plus programming.”
Roberts moved to Wilmington from Raleigh last May, and began redesigning the University’s entrepreneurial initiative. Formerly part of the Cameron School of Business, the innovation and entrepreneurship center is now a separate institution, with its headquarters located just south of campus. Roberts is patterning the center off of similar institutions in Durham, a city he repeatedly praised for its entrepreneurial environment in an Aug. 21 interview.
“Durham has now become the hottest place in the Southeast for entrepreneurship,” he said. “They built a second accelerator and the day it was opened it was sold out. That was a month ago, and they’ve just announced a third one in downtown Raleigh.”
With a total capacity of 80-100 people, 20 offices in the building will provide proving grounds for young, up-start companies drawn not only from the university, but from both inside and outside the greater Wilmington area. In addition, Roberts envisions an open-air co-working space, with room for up to 20 entrepreneurs, to serve as a jumping-off point.
“There are no walls and minimal furniture, with the idea that there would be room for 10 to 20 companies in that space,” he said. “You basically have a desk, your laptop and Wi-Fi. We’re hoping that once you grow your company from there you’ll get an individual office and you can fit one to three people in those offices and then you continue to grow.”
In this setting, he hopes that tenants — the $100 monthly rent is waived for university students, staff and faculty — will be able to freely communicate, sharing expertise to grow each other’s ideas into companies.
“We need to build this network of the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said.
In addition to networking, the center will provide programming, such as grant proposal and sales workshops, as well as financial backing. With experience working both with angel investing firms and entrepreneurial networks in Asheville, Charlotte and the Triangle area, Roberts has a rolodex of investors whose expectations and risk tolerance he already understands. In addition, a new Seahawk Fund will operate separately from the university and provide mid-level investments and direct oversight for five of the 20 offices.
Tom Looney, a local business leader and successful entrepreneur, is one of three general partners who will manage the fund and provide operational and managerial expertise to the center’s tenants.
“Our next step is to complete the contract with the university, which we’re really 99 percent of the way there,” said Looney in an Aug. 16 interview. “We expect to start raising funds and meeting with prospective limited partners this fall and by early 2014 we expect to be able to report some progress.”
A grand opening for UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, at 803 S. College Road, is scheduled on Sept. 5.