Home CommunityContributors CONTRIBUTOR THOUGHTS: 10 years later, Wilmington’s startup ecosystem is buzzing

CONTRIBUTOR THOUGHTS: 10 years later, Wilmington’s startup ecosystem is buzzing

by Jim Roberts

Back in early 2021, Hypepotamus took a reporting trip up to Wilmington, North Carolina to better understand how startups are growing in the beach community. One of the ecosystem leaders of The Port City is Jim Roberts, Founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) and the WALE Angel Network. Roberts gave us a look at how the city’s startup scene has evolved over the last 10 years…and how the capital landscape is changing to help more founders. 

Here’s what Roberts has to say…


Pop the Bubbly!!!  The formal Wilmington startup ecosystem is now ten years old.

And we are trying to graduate from the wobbly child in elementary school and like some recent high school athletes, we may “reclassify” and skip some grades to become a more mature and competitive ecosystem to attract the best entrepreneur talent. With the potential knowledge gained and growth from our 2023 events, we may skip middle school and high school and go right to graduate school. 

Want proof of the growth? SEVEN Wilmington and southeastern North Carolina startups who are active in the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington events and programmatic activities were chosen for the upcoming CED Venture Connect investor conference. Four were chosen for the Charleston-based DigSouth Tech Summit last year.


Spring Brings Growth

Our March 2nd event will be our largest crowd in the proud history of our monthly startup events since the Network for Entrepreneurs was started. We are hosting two former nCino executives who had moved on before the recent cutbacks in the post IPO maturation stage. We know Tim McLoughlin of Cofounders Capital is the brilliant mind who can get to the core factors of startup success as the moderator of this event. 

nCino is by far the most successful homegrown startup in Wilmington as a spin out from Live Oak Bank. But close behind is a lesser known powerful startup spinout called Apiture. And now with the fuel to grow the FinTech sector, Canapi Ventures, a $545 million venture fund is also based in Wilmington.

Both of the nCino executives who are speaking on March 2nd were part of the hockey stick growth as the fintech company became an international success story. With some guidance from the Live Oak Bank founders and the nCino CEO Pierre Naude, the employees became executives and leaders. Our audience will learn from those lessons as they are shared from the stage.

One of our March 2nd speakers is Natalie Waggett, one of the first 15 employees at nCino. She was a high level  executive in Sales. She is now leading a new Salesforce based software company that combines CRM with the supply chain needs of breweries, distilleries and other consumer products. Ohanafy Software is growing quickly as a young startup with 17 employees and interns and 14 new clients. Clients like Tarboro Brewing and End of Days Distillery can be seen on social media videos explaining why the software is a crucial piece of their success.

Joining her on stage is Dory Weiss, a former nCino software development executive. Admittedly, it is extremely difficult to be known as a respected leader in Wilmington but Dory is one of the true leaders in the corporate world and also a leader in the community. After recently leaving nCino, she has joined VIIZR as the head of product. VIIZR is a Palo Alto, CA based company with software for professionals in the skilled trades and a partner with Ford.

A large part of the future of the Wilmington innovation economy is going to be former Live Oak Bank and nCino employees who have this great work experience and now can use those resources to become entrepreneurs within a more mature ecosystem. We are already seeing this with Ohanafy Software, Telios and even a new Web 3 company from one of the founders of nCino.


Growth Requires Fuel and We Have a $1 BILLION Plan

Like most small conservative Southern towns, there is a perceived lack of capital available to startup entrepreneurs, but attracting capital is the most difficult for first time founders.

So I am putting my investor contacts and the value from 25 years of consistent and persistent business event networking to the test and calling in some favors.

On April 13th, we are hosting a private event as our Inaugural Wilmington Investor Buzz In Event at the Beach. Sure, this only happens in bigger cities like Raleigh / Durham, Atlanta and Nashville. (Wow, investor and leader Monique Villa is doing a GREAT job in Nashville for Launch TN.) But we asked six angel fund and venture capital leaders to speak at our event and all but one said yes. Frankly, asking a Silicon Valley investor listed in the top 50 VCs to travel cross country was a bit of a stretch but hey I took my shot.

During Wilmington’s famous / infamous Azalea Festival, we will host First Star Ventures from Boston, Sheltowee Capital from Tennessee, Good Growth Capital from Charleston, SC, Front Porch Capital from Raleigh and welcome Canapi Ventures for the first time on our stage as a speaker and a sponsor.

The quality of these investors has attracted 35 additional investors to hear from and network with these new investors contacts. Venture Capital can be simple or can be very complicated depending on your point of view. Some VC funds are “Funds of Funds” meaning they invest into other venture funds instead of or in addition to directly investing in startups. And of course, when a venture capital fund makes an investment into a startup they also need to convince other venture funds to invest in that same startup for fuel for growth.

Of course all of this capital is only helpful if they invest in the local Wilmington startups. So we will prepare four – six local startups to present their value propositions to these experienced investors. Our startups have matured with the help of the ecosystem to win NC IDEA grants, SBIR grants, stage time at pitch events like CED Venture Connect and DigSouth in Charleston. That has led to dozens of angel investments and deals such as EasyVote Solutions with Triangle based venture funds.


First Time Founders LOVE to Learn from Experienced Entrepreneurs 

And for the dessert on April 13th, we have confirmed that Raleigh’s #1 serial entrepreneur, Scot Wingo, will speak to the entrepreneur community as we open the doors to our normal monthly event. In addition to his success in four companies such as Stingray Software, Auction Rover (acquired) and ChannelAdvisor (IPO), his latest company Get Spiffy, has a Wilmington franchise. Wingo was also just listed as the most active investor in the USA by CrunchBase with his Triangle Tweener Fund. Wingo has a great presentation on the twelve challenges when scaling a startup.

All of this is part of our Coastal Corridor plan as we have invited more than 100 of our investor friends to speak at the coast and actually enjoy their own beach house that they rarely visit due to their busy work and family schedules.

So as Raleigh is looking forward to a frozen football field to be used as a hockey rink, Wilmington is preparing for the warmth of Spring, bourbon drinks at the annual Garden Party during Azalea Festival and getting down ….to business. Let’s hope people stick around for the concerts too.



Jim Roberts is the Founder of the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) and the WALE Angel Network, founded in 2015. Jim was the founding Executive Director of the UNC Wilmington CIE incubator and coworking space. Jim has been building entrepreneur ecosystems in North Carolina for 23 years by starting the first tech entrepreneur support orgs in Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington. Jim is also a former employee of COIN (Nanotech program of NC Biotech Center) and the NC Department of Commerce.

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