Wilson chosen for business incubator support

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A reputation for innovation and forward thinking put Wilson at the top of more than 100 peer cities for an initiative that will help make a planned technological incubator not only a reality, but a success.

“The city of Wilson has truly developed a national profile as a community taking bold action to develop an innovation economy,” said Matt Dunne, executive director of Rural Innovation Strategies and founder of the Center on Rural Innovation. “The Gig East Hub will leverage the city’s broadband connectivity with its human capital to strengthen and grow its digital economy. The Rural Innovation Initiative will be a fast-paced technical assistance sprint that will work to catalyze further progress in Wilson.”

Dunne, Director of Strategic Partnerships Ann Lichter and other staff were in town this week to work with city personnel to transform 127 Goldsboro St. into a tech-focused incubator in 2020. The project — previously known as the Innovation Hub and rebranded as the Gig East Hub — is a collaborative effort with a $1.1 million grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and a $1.6 million investment from the city.

“An innovation hub is a place where people who are doing similar work — in this case innovative and technology-related work — can come to work together, share ideas and if they have an idea they want to turn into a business, that can be accelerated,” Dunne said. “The vision for Wilson is both to support people who have smaller, local market types of business as well as ones that are scalable. They have different approaches, but the fundamentals are the same and creating that energy about it is what a hub can provide along with programming and expertise and even some investment funds.”

As one of nine initiative participants, Wilson is eligible for up to a $750,000 grant for hub programs. The initiative also provides a variety of technical resources and collaborative assistance similar to that provided during Wilson’s participation in InnovateNC. Wilson is the lone East Coast community that was selected from more than 130 communities across 40 states.

“We’ve been in touch with Wilson for about a year because they are known nationally as a rural community that pushed the envelope on technology early on. This is a community that took on the issue of broadband as core infrastructure before anyone else did and showed many the way to make it work,” Dunne said. “When it came time to narrow down the list of communities to work with, Wilson was obvious because they’ve already done so much of that work in thoughtful, strategic ways.

“We’re learning as much from Wilson that we can share with other communities as we’re delivering to them.”

As part of the initiative, Wilson will receive on-site and videoconference support as well as templates and written materials to execute the innovation hub strategy: an economic development model that works to educate and train local residents in digital skills, employ them in new-economy jobs and empower them to launch the startups that will drive their digital economy. There will be technical assistance to refine strategies, develop partnerships and leverage resources.

“Another thing that made Wilson stand out, aside from making the investment in Greenlight, was the active steps to leverage it and intentionally develop Gig East, promoting it as a brand associated with the town,” said Lichter. “They are changing the narrative and opening people’s imaginations to what is possible in a place like Wilson. They show it is possible to have an entrepreneur-geared initiative for the digital economy.”

Rebecca Agner, communications and marketing director for the city of Wilson, said the Gig East Hub is designed to recruit tech-minded entrepreneurs and professionals of all ages and demographics.

“Our vision is to create a mentorship program that is second to none with more longer-range programs, an increased number of Gig East meetups, hosting other technology meetups and focus on building a strong youth component,” she said. “We’re not growing a pipeline to provide the Triangle’s future workers. We’re doing this for the future of Wilson’s economy.”

Lichter said an innovation hub model often serves to give innovators the resources and support to take the leap to entrepreneurship. And Dunne noted that the collaborative and informal interactions that happen within a hub often spurs greater technological advances.

“Wilson has a history of self-reliance. We know the world and Wilson are changing. What succeeded 100 years ago doesn’t work anymore and if you look at areas like advanced manufacturing, the jobs of the future are going to be different than they are even now and in the tradition of self-reliance, we need to figure out the next iteration of the Wilson economy,” Agner said. “We’re well positioned to be a part of the innovation economy. The Gig East Hub is about ensuring our community’s economic future.”