Trying to start a business? UNCW's CIE center can help - WECT, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Trying to start a business? UNCW's CIE center can help

From free mentoring, to cheap office space to qualifying tenants, the CIE can help you turn your idea into a viable business. (Source: WECT) From free mentoring, to cheap office space to qualifying tenants, the CIE can help you turn your idea into a viable business. (Source: WECT)

Helping business start-ups get off the ground and grow - that’s the goal of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. 

“Every day we get 10-15 people show up at our door from the general population… who have questions about…support they want from the university, whether they have a website, mobile app, things like that, or if they have a business idea themselves,” explained Dr. Ronald Vetter, a dean of the Graduate School at UNCW who also has a business incubating in the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or CIE.

Who They Help

The CIE is set up as a one-stop shop for people looking to start a business. For those who want to start an ice cream store, for example, the Small Business Administration has an office there. Or if you are trying to put together a business plan to take to the bank to apply for a business loan, you can stop by the Small Business Technology Development Center, which also has an outpost at the CIE.

But for a certain niche of entrepreneurs, tech start-ups in particular, the CIE can provide more than a referral. After you pass a vetting process, the CIE can serve as an incubator as you try to get your new business off the ground.

“We are really looking for businesses that are going to be online businesses, businesses that are in the traded sector, they are actually going to be selling services that are outside of the area, with the idea that the money that they make flows back into the community,” Vetter explained of their target tenants.

What They Provide

The CIE provides advice and mentoring free of charge. Space is available for rent at $100/month for use of common space, or $250-$500/month for a private office, depending on size. Renters enjoy high-speed internet, phones, computers, and other office amenities that can be difficult to afford for fledgling businesses. They also have a staffed front desk to accept phone calls and packages for tenants.

But the center is not a means to cheap rent for your business indefinitely. They expect results.

“Within 18 months to two years, they probably should be successful, have grown in some respect, or we’d probably ask them to leave at that point to allow the next generation of folks in,” Vetter explained.

Success Stories

The CIE already has had several success stories. One of their first tenants was Next Glass, a start-up which created an app that helps you make educated beer and wine purchases based on your personal preferences. The company has made national headlines in publications like USA Today and Forbes for their innovative app, and Next Glass recently opened a new office in Downtown Wilmington. 

Other promising companies you may not have heard of include Lapetus Solutions, a UNCW faculty start-up that uses facial recognition technology to predict life expectancy, marketing that service to industries like life insurance companies.

“The average salary is $70,000, which is significant [in the Wilmington market]. And they have 11 employees,” Vetter explained.

Another private tenant is Moor for Less, which is building a website to sell boat slips like people sell real estate. Another CIE company, SeaTox Research Inc. was started by a UNCW professor. Dr. Jennifer McCall's creation of a portable chemical testing kit allows commercial fisherman to determine in the field if shellfish are safe for harvesting. Previously, sample shellfish had to be sent off to the lab for testing, which is expensive and time consuming.

Private Partner

Under the Seahawk Innovation program, the CIE partners with private business experts, who work in-house and search for businesses that have potential but haven’t realized it yet.

One example: Mimijumi. Its innovative baby bottle design makes it easier for nursing mothers to switch between bottle and breast feeding. The European company was on the verge of failure before being discovered by the Seahawk Innovation team, and with the right management tweaks and improvements to the business model from the CIE crew, Mimijumi enjoyed over $1 million in sales last year.

“There is something in the innovation world called the valley of death. So you start an idea, you run out of money, and then you hit this valley. And if you don’t get out of the valley, your business dies. So [Seahawk Innovation] found them as they were headed toward the valley of death,” Vetter said of the successful turnaround.

The private Seahawk Innovation team also helps start-up businesses recruit venture capital.

How it’s Funded

In addition to rent from tenants, the City of Wilmington made a $70,000 a year, five-year commitment to help the CIE get up and running. UNCW committed $250,000 a year for the same time period, with an order that the CIE be self-sustaining after that five-year period. The CIE also has external donors like the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Cape Fear Future and BB&T.

That money helps pay for two full-time staff members including center director. The CIE also hires 8-10 students part-time throughout the year, who are getting hands on experience in how to start and run a business.

The CIE facility is run out of a former real estate office next to UNCW on South College Road. Because of the relatively low overhead, the CIE is able to extend very cheap rent to its tenants. This is an advantage compared to some universities that have built multi-story CIE facilities on campus, in keeping with the rest of their university’s architecture. Vetter says due to their high overhead, their rent is higher, making it has been more difficult to attract start-up businesses.

The UNCW CIE is now in its third year of operation. They currently have 31 tenants, with a few offices still available for rent.

They also have workshops open to the public about once a month on various topics to help you run your own business.

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