Wilmington has made great strides in the last 18 months to grow its startup community, and plenty of activity has come as a result.
But so far, these efforts have been spread around various parts of town—fast-growing Next Glass, nCino and the newly public Live Oak Bank have been in Midtown, Cloudwyze in Leland, tekMountain in the Mayfaire area
, and the UNCW Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CIE) near the college.
Soon, both Next Glass
will move to downtown Wilmington. They will join Elite Innovations' new downtown space
and the monthly startup events that Jim Roberts
has been holding at Ironclad Brewery. All this activity begs the questions, will downtown Wilmington become our coastal region's tech hub? Why are these companies focusing on downtown?
History Repeats Itself
While many city leaders may not want to talk about it, up until the 1970s, downtown Wilmington was an area of ill-repute, with drugs, prostitution and other crime. In more recent years, downtown has been known by the locals as an area with too many bars, and crime issues related to those bars. But those issues have been addressed with investments and time, and downtown has shifted into a nice, historic area that serves as a tourist magnet. Now businesses seem to want to locate there as well, giving the area a strong combination of business, history and nightlife.
To get a feel for the startup movement downtown, I talked with local business leaders—Ed Wolver of Wilmington Downtown Inc., real estate developer John Hinnant with Maus Warwick Matthews as well as representatives of Next Glass and Cloudwyze. Commonly cited themes are that it's a vibrant area with a diversity of restaurants and entertainment options that people can walk to and from all their activities. The growth of Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) has added energy to the area and the 1,500 seat CFCC theater (think, a smaller DPAC) opening this fall adds to downtown’s cultural offerings.
Wolverton argues that startups and downtown are not a new combination, that entrepreneurs have always been attracted to Wilmington’s combination of historic buildings, funky industrial spaces and modern buildings. In the past, they’ve just been lower profile companies. Next Glass has earned national headlines, investors and major retail partners for its app that uses science and data to predict an individual’s wine or beer preferences. And Cloudwyze is an angel-backed IT and cloud infrastructure startup with customers around the nation.
Downtown matches well with the 24-7 environment in which many startups operate, says Wolverton. Downtown can meet commercial, residential, recreational and cultural needs all in one place. In essence, it can easily serve as the social center for individuals with many different interests, but who spend a lot of time at work.
According to Hinnant, who jokes that he is a startup specialist after doing deals with Next Glass, baby bottle maker Mimijumi and retailer Outdoor Equipped, it's partially economics as downtown lease rates are fairly priced in comparison to the rest of the market. He points out that the UNCW CIE was originally planned to be downtown until a good real estate deal became available near the college.
Part of the Cloudwyze effort to move downtown is to help Wilmington grow as a business and startup community. The founders believe this is easier to accomplish if startups are congregated together. In short, companies are making a more concentrated effort to create an interactive community. And they want it to be downtown.
Only in the last 18 months have there been enough startups in Wilmington to congregate in any location, yet alone downtown. The community has always realized that critical mass is important—in order for more startups to form and more employees to join them, there needs to be regular occurrences of bumping into random and interesting people and sharing new ideas and discovering new opportunities. Only then can you really discover synergies and partnership opportunities and be exposed to new ideas and share them. In a congregated environment, startups can also share resources, keeping cost low.
The CIE, tekMountain and Elite Innovations co-working and makerspaces exist for this purpose. There were 37 startups in UNCW's CIE at the end of May according to a story in PortCityDaily.com. But for those companies that succeed and grow need a place to move after they get too big for the incubator, downtown might just be the place they'll all move.
What's here and what's coming?
The following operations will be within five or so blocks of each other in the near future:
Its 20 employees will move into a downtown space this fall. The building will also include Ignition Campus
, a new public coworking space the company is creating with the move to encourage business growth and spark innovation.
Elite Innovations: Elite Innovations opened its makerspace about a year ago and has opened a second location in downtown's Chandler's Wharf to showcase products and get exposure to the public. It's much less industrial than the makerspace, which is just outside downtown.
Jim Roberts Events @ Ironclad Brewery: Since May, Roberts has held monthly startup events at Ironclad Brewery, quickly selling out of the 100 tickets per event.
Next Glass: Now with 20 employees, the company moves later this summer into an 11,000-square-foot building owned by James Goodnight, son of SAS founder Jim Goodnight.
Outdoor Equipped: This 3-year-old company that sells outdoor apparel and gear recently added a retail store downtown and is now hosting various events and gatherings for other startups.
Startup Factory??: The Startup Factory representatives have visited Wilmington at least twice over the past two months. They are hosting a bootcamp in Winston-Salem next week. Are they exploring our town for boot camp opportunities or something beyond that?
So what will be next? According to Hinnant, there will be additional cultural amenities, with 3-5 more brewery openings and a potential boutique grocery store. There are also plenty of additional buildings that could be attractive to startups.
According to Shaun Olsen, CEO of Cloudwyze, "Restaurants, coffee houses, wine bars and bottle shops—and of course the RiverWalk—all provide ample opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals and get the kind of encouragement that helps you build that next big dream."
Many people have a dream for continued progress in downtown Wilmington—if the trend continues, startups could be its next big growth driver.