Garrett Blackwelder was frustrated. He was not getting the response needed from the Texas manufacturer of the gaming-machine consoles he placed in local convenience stores and bars. It shouldn’t be this hard to get good service, he thought. In that moment, Blackwelder saw an opportunity — and took it.
In 2013, he founded Grover Gaming in Greenville to make electronic games for all types of niche gaming markets. Blackwelder, the CEO, wanted to create a company that could do a better job than vendors he had previously worked with. Last year, his staff grew by 64% and is expected to reach 175 employees by next year.
“You have to be changing while maintaining effectiveness,” Blackwelder says. “We constantly try to innovate our systems and games.”
Blackwelder is the kind of innovative entrepreneur driving the economy in eastern North Carolina.
Mad Mole Brewery of Wilmington is owned and operated by Martin de Jongh and Ole Pederson. Although the brewery will be only a year old in May, product development has been ongoing.
“We had been home brewing in our garage for about 10 years. We built our own brew rig … and then our boss at our day job ended up acquiring a building. We said, ‘It’s definitely time to start a brewery!’” de Jongh says. The partners still try new small-batch recipes in the garage brewery before adding any to their current menu of 12 distinctive craft brews at the main facility, which is partially powered by solar panels.
De Jongh and Pederson have worked together for nearly 20 years, first at Worden Brothers Inc. as computer programmers and now as brewery co-owners.
Eighteen breweries now operate in the area along what is known as the Wilmington Ale Trail. A local business, Port City Brew Bus, offers tastings, tours and other special events. Pederson says that the community, mostly small entrepreneurs, is very supportive.
Towns throughout eastern North Carolina are experiencing similar trends, with a rise in startups and revitalization efforts.
Over the last six years, Uptown Greenville, a nonprofit economic development organization, has been adding businesses to the 10-by-6-block area in the heart of the city, says Bianca Shoneman, president and CEO of the organization. In 2018, downtown welcomed 17 new businesses. In that time, Shoneman reports that 600 full- and part-time jobs were added.
“[In my last job] I commuted every week because I didn’t want to raise my kids in a city,” says Ryan Butcher, a Greenville entrepreneur.
Butcher says there were many advantages to staying in Greenville versus moving to a bigger tech startup city when he began eAudit in 2013. One was having a close-knit community of tech talent who had the option of working in a startup atmosphere while maintaining the sense of balance a smaller town offers.
The entrepreneurial support in Greenville was very helpful, Butcher says. Through the city of Greenville’s Small Business Planning Grant contest, he won $15,000, allowing him to set up a small office for his new software-development product. eAudit helps shippers control costs. “It helped us create a very modern space that was Silicon Valley-esque,” Butcher says of the startup grant.
Greenville’s Small Business Planning Grant comes from the state and is for center city and west Greenville business opportunities.
“We have a ‘rising tides float all ships’ mentality in the community,” Shoneman says.
Educational institutions like East Carolina University also play a major role.
In the planning stage for his tech company, Butcher spent about a year with a team of engineers that he sourced from ECU. “The relationship with academia and software development is pretty symbiotic,” Butcher says. “So the university here has been a great resource.”
With the largest undergraduate student population from rural counties in the state, East Carolina University leads the pack in educational innovation as well with its Rural Prosperity Initiative.
That initiative, headed by Jay Golden, vice chancellor for the division of research, economic development and engagement, focuses on bringing more opportunities to the region through connecting multidiscipline student teams formed through ECU’s Small Business Technology Development Center with local opportunities for business-plan development, mentoring and even seed money.
“[We’re] creating innovation whether it’s in arts, or the new biomaterial, or health sciences, or engineering technologies or strategies — it could be anything,” Golden says. Startups in the program then agree to stay in North Carolina for five years. They may even stay and be a part of ECU’s new Millennial Campus where private-public partnerships come together.
One of ECU’s success stories is the patent-protected, FDA-approved iCertainty medical device, invented and developed at ECU in 2010 by a team of experts in medicine, science and engineering. The device allows doctors to continuously monitor blood flow during surgery.
In 2005, when Bruce Ferguson became the head of the East Carolina Heart Institute, he was using an early blood-flow imaging tool by Novadaq Technologies with his heart surgeries.
In 2008, Ferguson hired Cheng Chen, who had a Ph.D. in optical physics, and the two began work on a way to quantify blood profusion. (Profusion refers to blood movement in the smallest vessels in the body.)
Frustrated by the time it took interrupting surgeries to assess this critical information, Ferguson knew there must be a better way. He, Cheng and another faculty member, Xin-hua Hu, went to work on their own imaging prototype.
Jeffrey Basham was hired as the CEO of RFPi Inc., the company formed in 2014 to develop and market the new product.
“There is a lot of opportunity in the eastern part of the state,” Basham says, “and a lot of support. We had angel money from [Inception Micro Angel Family of Funds]. Because the technology came out of East Carolina University, we have a lot of support from alumni of ECU.”
Diane Durance, director of UNC Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says her team works with students, faculty and community members to develop new business ideas in three focus areas where faculty have strong expertise: marine sciences; film and media production; and health, education or data-analytics technologies.
A few of these Wilmington-based startups were selected for the Innovation Demo room at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development Tech Conference this February in Raleigh.
Founded by Bruce Rice, QuoteQuest is a cloud-based e-commerce platform connecting suppliers of construction materials to buyers.
Another company, Uni-SPIRE, is led by CEO Debbie Powell, a former full-time faculty member in the Department of Education. The company features a writing curriculum platform developed for the K-12 market.
“Twenty percent of the ventures we work with are student ventures,” Durance says, “and about 10% are university spinouts. … The rest are people from the community.”
UNCW CEI is also a sponsor of Fish 2.0, a global program that connects entrepreneurs in sustainable fisheries, agriculture and seafood industries with investors from around the world. The center hosts the U.S. South Atlantic track in Wilmington, educating and mentoring marine science-based businesses to meet investors.
With strong support from the CEI, which has coworking space available for incubation, the startups often do hire students from UNCW, growing the local economy.
A supportive entrepreneurial community and business climate often attract newcomers.
“One of the ideas in moving here was the affordability of eastern North Carolina, and knowing I would be on the road traveling a lot, getting closer to family worked very well … kind of a win-win,” says Game Plan founder and CEO Vin McCaffrey, who moved to Greenville about 10 years ago to continue developing his software company.
Game Plan, a software platform used by college and university athletic departments to assist with maintaining the eligibility of their athletes and to assist with off-the-field goals, now boasts contracted revenue increasing almost 200% in the last 24 months.
More innovation is in the works, such as a mobile app version of the software. “We are looking to grow a massive business. We want to scale this to be very significant,” says McCaffrey, who finds Greenville very supportive of entrepreneurs.
Many eastern North Carolina counties, whose economic base has been traditionally in the agricultural industry, are also experiencing new growth and innovation.
Steve Yost, president of North Carolina’s Southeast, a regional economic-development organization, says much of his coverage area now also boasts expansions in the agricultural sector due to innovations in bioenergy. Catawba Biogas, with facilities in Anson County to be completed by year’s end, has invested $15 million in turning poultry waste from nearby farms into natural gas, then pumping it into nearby pipelines. The plant will employ 10 to 15 people.
Duke Energy is working with most of these waste-to-energy companies on contracts for the purchase of the energy.
With North Carolina’s commitment to upgrade and expand infrastructure, larger companies can capitalize on new technologies.
Last spring, as part of a $200 million infrastructure project, North Carolina Ports expanded one of its nine berths, with another scheduled for this spring. In addition, the Port of Wilmington received two new cranes last March and another this year. These upgrades, especially the expansion of the port’s turning basin by 100 feet, boost operational efficiency. Now, large container ships are able to complete a full three-point turn, increasing the port’s service capacity. Last year the Port of Wilmington reported container growth of 38%.
The longtime military presence in eastern North Carolina has been innovating as well. Launched last year as a collaborative effort with N.C.’s Southeast and Craven, Lenoir and Wayne counties’ economic-development offices, the North Carolina Aerospace Corridor promotes the common assets in the region — convenient access to air, rail, highways, international ports and four military bases. So far, 28 companies, many nationally known, call that region home, according to the group’s website.
“The military is the second-largest sector in the state’s economy and has about a $66 billion-dollar impact on [our] economy,” says Scott Dorney, executive director of the North Carolina Military Business Center, whose mission is to connect local businesses with the military’s need for their products and services.
As early as 2009, Dorney says his organization recognized a need for a separate department focusing solely on tech transition. By 2016, with support from the N.C. Military Affairs Commission and the General Assembly, NCMBC established the N.C. Defense Technology Transition Office, whose work is to identify innovative North Carolina businesses with technologies that have potential application in the defense sector and assist them with navigating federal agencies for proper support of development.
Denny Lewis, director of DEFTECH, emphasizes that DEFTECH mentors small businesses applying for prototype development support through application to a governmental department.
One such company successfully navigating this process is Windlift, an energy firm with immediate applications for the military, agriculture and mining. Founder and CEO Rob Creighton moved to North Carolina in 2008 after incubating the technology in Madison, Wis.
One cold winter day while outside conducting field tests, Creighton’s hands were freezing and his testing equipment was icing. He remembers thinking, “If I am going to be testing and improving my technology, I should move someplace that is a little bit warmer and windier.” Fortunately, Creighton’s wife had ties to Duke University. They moved the family to the area. “I drove my prototype a couple of days later out to the Outer Banks,” Creighton says, “and was testing it originally near Kitty Hawk. …The winds [there] are very clean and thermally driven, so they allow you to get a full range of wind conditions and really accelerate the technology development.”
In 2009, Creighton secured his first military contract to cover the testing of another prototype on fallow agricultural fields in Hyde County.
Windlift’s website describes the technology as an “airborne power generation system” that is capable of capturing the same wind energy as a traditional turbine, using 10% of the material. “Our technology’s unique in that [it is] very portable and very mobile,” Creighton says. “That’s why the military funded us.”
It can take anywhere from six to 20 years for a small business to get a procurement contract on its own. But organizations like NCMBC and DEFTECH shorten the process as part of what Dorney calls “the best state infrastructure in the country” for helping businesses work with the military and other federal agencies.
“That’s called the North Carolina innovation ecosystem,” says DEFTECH’s Lewis. It is alive and well in eastern North Carolina.