InnovatEC: Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center in Northeastern NC

Northeastern NC

By Meredith Bunnel

In 2016, The Albemarle Commission and Elizabeth City State University proposed teaming up to establish an innovation and entrepreneurship center in northeastern North Carolina. The center would be in Elizabeth City, and would serve not only the Albemarle Region, but the entire ECSU Service Region – a region comprising a total of 21 counties. The purpose of the center would be to cultivate an environment for innovation, entrepreneurship, and adult continuing education, and to generate ideas that lead to opportunities for citizens of northeastern North Carolina. If successful, the center would serve as a “clearing house” for services, resources, and programs designed to prepare students at all levels for post-graduation careers, provide adult continuing education, and assist entrepreneurs and regional business owners with business development.

The Commission and ECSU engaged NCGrowth to gauge the demand for and interest in the center, help define programming needs, and identify potential users. NCGrowth analysts and staff conducted case study and demographic research, reviewed existing and past plans for similar entrepreneurship projects, conducted targeted interviews, attended regional events, and developed and distributed a survey for potential users and partners to gauge interest in and support for the project.

The survey served as the primary research tool, and NCGrowth distributed it widely to three stakeholder groups. First, the survey targeted organizations and individuals in the region who are already providing small business support services in some capacity (“resource providers”). Next, the survey attempted to discern how business owners or entrepreneurs would want to interact with the space: what kind of services are they looking for and what resources should be available there? NCGrowth sought responses from two major groups for those questions—current or former small business owners in the region and students involved with entrepreneurship programs at the local colleges and universities.

Once the survey closed, NCGrowth prepared a slide presentation and written report to present both the findings from the survey and best practices/recommendations for the project moving forward. Overall, NCGrowth found the local small business community to be receptive to the idea of the center, but proponents will need to establish a clear vision for what the center is to be and how it can fit in to the existing small business support landscape. NCGrowth was also able to provide recommendations about site selection, metrics for evaluating program success, possible program focus ideas, and the importance of a committed and empowered champion or steering committee. NCGrowth presented their findings and recommendations at an event at Elizabeth City State University in March 2017, and the final report was prepared in April 2017.

Meredith Bunnel is an NCGrowth analyst and master’s candidate at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.