An engine for entrepreneurial growth has been chugging away quietly for the past eight years in University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Seahawk Innovation, which both invests in and nurtures ventures, is fueled by university research and expertise, outside technologies and a variety of funding sources.
“Part of our mission is to start businesses that grow and drive wealth in the community, leading to community benefit,” said Seahawk Innovation co-founder and general partner Tobin Geatz. “We like to use money that’s local [to fund early stages], exporting our brainpower and products and importing money from all over the world into Wilmington.”
The endeavor began in 2013 when Geatz and co-founder Tom Looney approached UNCW’s then-Chancellor Gary Miller with their concept of a public-private partnership that would enrich the university and the local community.
Seahawk Innovation’s launch coincided roughly with Miller’s efforts to ramp up the university’s role in the area’s entrepreneurial environment.
Armed with investments from its own partners, local angels, UNCW, the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County, Seahawk Innovations has fostered a number of startups at the CIE. It also is actively involved with companies in which it has invested both intellectual and financial capital.
“We have funded and grown two consumer products in the ‘baby’ space: Mimijumi and Natursutten,” said partner Brendan Collins, who joined Seahawk Innovation when Looney became ill and took a less active role in the enterprise. “We have LifeGait, a medical technology software as a service for measuring and helping manage neurological diseases, frailty and fall prevention.”
LifeGait is the parent of Sport- Gait, whose software diagnoses and helps manage concussions in young people.
“We have licensed the core technology, which was developed by Dr. Mark Williams for NHRMC, and brought it to UNCW,” Geatz said. “In conjunction with the psychology department we have proven the technology.”
Another tech import is Jenson8, whose virtual reality software is used for leadership training and employee assessment, according to Geatz.
“We brought it from the U.K. and used partnerships with [UNCW’s] psychology and computer science departments to build it out,” he added.
Seahawk Innovation’s work benefits university teachers and researchers by connecting them with commercial applications for their expertise. It also can put extra money in their pockets.
“We hire professors and graduate and undergraduate students, which in today’s environment helps,” Geatz said. “Grants aren’t what they used to be. We have a doctoral student who helps us part-time and that helps fund his education.
“We also do consulting,” he continued. “We act as investment bankers, which means we make the deals when companies want to merge. We’re actively involved with a group of medical companies called Fountain Life. We’re embedded consultants because we’re part of the company.”
Geatz and Collins helped the companies merge their complementary expertise and services into one entity that provides an integrated platform giving individuals predictive, preventive, personalized data-driven health information to help them stay healthy and active.
“We’ve stayed on in an active management role primarily focused on corporate development,” Collins said. “The shareholders are high-profile folks globally who are in medicine, science, business and investment.”
No UNCW resources are involved in Fountain Life at this point, but it’s likely they will be in the future, Geatz said. “That’s our M.O.: using local people to do the work and generating job opportunities.”