There are many hurdles and hardships for an entrepreneur trying to succeed. Among those is the ever constant need for capital, particularly from outside investors.
Coastal North Carolina areas don’t have the same density of startups as Raleigh/Durham or Charlotte, but several organizations have been working to change that by gathering and supporting startup business owners. And there have been some big successes with Next Glass and nCino raising large amounts of capital and grabbing national headlines.
Early stage investment dollars remained a clear need until recently, when a new investment group was announced. Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE), a network formed by a handful of entrepreneurs in and around the region, provides opportunities for early stage startups to secure what would be otherwise out-of-reach seed money along with mentorship. And it has already made its first investment in a pet technology company called Petrics, founded by the manager of the Elite Innovations makerspace in Wilmington.
It can be very hard for a new tech business in Wilmington to raise money. Factoring its traditionally conservative economic climate, some founders may find themselves pitching to investors who are uncomfortable with certain technologies, business models and propositions. This often leads to a dance of introduction after introduction before founders are matched to willing funding sources. This process is a lengthy gamble that does not suit the iteration and growth requirements for early startups in these industries.
WALE Founder Jim Roberts, an experienced organizer of entrepreneurial investment groups and committees, envisions WALE as a network comprised of investors who have played the role of startup entrepreneur themselves and can not only provide financial support but mentorship. With a little handholding and some small bets on these more nascent companies, the investors can prepare businesses to stand before larger investors and VCs.
Roberts expects to help train his investors on how to best support entrepreneurs. He has experience doing just that at various statewide organizations, most recently the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
WALE does not intend to compete with existing investing entities such as the Wilmington Investor Network (WIN) or IMAF Cape Fear, but instead invest at much earlier stages of a business. And in fact, Roberts hopes to work with entrepreneurs to make them ready for investment by other local groups. In addition, a partnership between WALE and 12 additional angel groups could provide more capital to qualified founders. If the sum invested by WALE members into a Wilmington startup is at least $50,000, the deal will be considered by other groups in the network. Given enough well-suited opportunities, WALE hopes to make between four to six investments a year.
WALE will mostly invest in tech and life science—its investors hail from those fields and most new Wilmington startups operate in those industries. Roberts’ experience with organizations such as the Center of Innovation for NanoBiotechnology (COIN) positions him well for these industries too.
Petrics will be the network's guinea pig. The company has created a device and software that helps pet owners ensure their pets are eating the right amount of food at the right time. The system promises to be affordable and to accurately portion pet food, avoiding many avoidable and costly pet illnesses caused by overeating.
Roberts hopes to source additional deals through his other initiative, Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington or NEW. For the last six months, he's held startup events and (often Triangle-based) speakers at Ironclad Brewery in downtown Wilmington in hopes of better connecting Raleigh and Durham entrepreneurs with those in his town. NEW formalizes that event series. The next one, coming December 10, focuses on the topic of venture capital and includes several Triangle investors.
This relationship is one Roberts refers to as the “Coastal Corridor,” and with NEW as a focal point, he forms a gateway between the small business economies from the coast and the regions deeper into the state. Roberts hopes to give coastal entrepreneurs an advantage by introducing them to leaders from the Triangle—they'll have a warm introduction when they network in Raleigh or Durham and won't feel like they have to move inland to make those connections. Roberts hopes Wilmington entrepreneurs can act as ambassadors for their town, presenting themselves as part of an active and thriving entrepreneurial community. And that inspires others to start companies, and to pitch to WALE to invest.
WALE could be a catalyst for more investors to get involved in Wilmington. It promises to help close a difficult-to-jump gap in the growth process of most startups. This, along with developing connections between growing business communities across the state, can create a firm foundation for both existing and soon-to-be-founded Wilmington businesses.