Imagine sitting in a room with the area’s five largest employers on a stage.
One by one, each company representative steps forward to articulate the business problems that keep them up at night. Suddenly, the gatekeeper to these highly influential people is gone. And if someone in the audience happens to have an idea or solution, that person can connect directly with the decision-maker.
It’s scenarios like that one that Jim Roberts, the new Executive Director of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, described recently in-studio.
“Because you have five big companies that can pay their bills. And each of them have five problems that they announce on a stage publicly. Then there’s twenty-five new opportunities for the people in the room to say, ‘I do that.’ Or, ‘I know I can do that.’ Or, ‘I have an idea around that. Can we work together?’”
Jim Roberts likes to connect people with people and people with resources. So waiting for the September Grand Opening of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship – or the CIE – isn’t even on the table. He’s already coaching local entrepreneurs.
The biggest pitfall for them, he says, is the tendency for these newly-hatched innovators to get in front of investors before they’re fully cooked.
“These innovative companies don’t come out of the womb tall dark and handsome. Some have scars and warts and you have to work on these to build them up so they are attractive to investors.”
There are a slew of resources that many entrepreneurs simply don’t know about. For example, Roberts says being able to tell potential investors about a helpful state tax credit can be the difference between making a deal – and not. The Qualified Business Venture Tax Credit -- like the film incentive – can apply to innovative business ideas.
“If an investor invests in a company below 5 million dollars of revenue, that investor can write off 25% of their investment in their state income tax credits. So if they make $100,000 in investment, they can write off $25,000 on their state income taxes. And that’s a way the state has created to create more investment into innovative products.”
But that tax credit will expire in January if state lawmakers don’t renew it.
There’s also a federal grant for innovative businesses available to entrepreneurs. It’s the Small Business and Innovation Research Grant.
“… which is basically non-dilutive equity for companies.”
That means entrepreneurs don’t have to give away a piece of their company in exchange for investment. The grant can range, says Roberts, from $150-thousand to a million-plus.
“And this is something that we really need to focus on in this region. We’re trailing other cities. And it’s an easy solution. There’s actually an employee of the state of North Carolina and this is all he does – is help entrepreneurs pursue these grants as a way to do economic development.”
But there is a place for accepting investment in return for equity in the company. The new Seahawk Innovation Fund is local; three general partners, well-known within the community, says Roberts, could be the solution for that particularly treacherous time in a company’s growth. He calls it “The Valley of Death.”
“There’s kind of this gap of investing which most funds don’t like to do. And so that’s what this Seahawk Innovation Fund will be. And it will be housed in new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship facility at 803 South College.”
Which brings us to Roberts’ vision of the Center itself…
“We have what’s now called co-working space… And basically, it’s an office with multiple companies but there are no walls. There’s minimal furniture, no walls, and they share energy and expertise within the group. One person may have a really good product but not know how to sell. There may be another person in the room who’s really good at selling and maybe they kind of train each other up on their weaknesses, if you will.”
A cornerstone of Roberts’ efforts at the Center will be the events. He’s planning workshops that cover how to apply for grants, how to raise capital, how to increase sales. And why is all this so important to him – and to UNCW?
“Well, UNCW wants to keep our graduates local… So it’s really about retaining the best and brightest and keeping them here so they create the jobs that our future graduates want.”
The grand opening of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is slated for September 5th.
Here's a link to the website: http://uncw.edu/cie/
Upcoming events include:
August 21st: Introducing NC IDEA, the state's premier not-for-profit organization that connects entrepreneurs with potential pathways to success. Featuring President and CEO David Rizzo and grants program manager Andrea Cook.
September 25th: The North Carolina Technology Association will hold a workshop with a reception following in downtown Wilmington.
October 17th: The CIE will host a workshop with the Small Business and Technology Development Center featuring the SBTDC’s John Ujvari. Ujvari’s presentation will focus on Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, which were developed by the Small Business Administration as an incentive for small businesses to explore their technological potential and support scientific excellence.