Nurturing business ideas here in Triad


Nurturing business ideas here in Triad

This week, in a box at the 17th hole of Sedgefield Country Club, they’ll talk about what could be.

They’re all in their 20s and 30s, in the spring of their professional lives, and as they soak in the Wyndham Championship, they’ll dream big and think about the contest they helped create.

It’s a business competition with some big-time backing. But really, it’s a fishing expedition meant to reel in entrepreneurs and give them the cash they need to turn their invention into a business.

That fishing expedition starts Monday.

It’s expected to be an annual competition, intended to entice entrepreneursregionwide to apply for a grant from the Piedmont Triad Partnership, our region’s biggest economic and marketing cheerleader.

If they win, they’ll get as much as $50,000 and get to connect with someof North Carolina’s best entrepreneurial minds to help their startup succeed.

But there’s a bigger picture here. Just look around.

You’ve seen the vacant storefronts in any commercial strip, any downtown in our 12-county region. And this competition is about helping reinvent the Piedmont Triad and making a place where businesses flourish rather than die.

The figures are grim. Since June 2000, the Piedmont Triad has lost 91,000 jobs. So, this competition is not just about finding cool inventions. It’s about transformation, survival, job creation and local pride.

At least that’s how John Martin and David Worth see it.

Martin is 28; Worth, 32. They both grew up in Greensboro, graduatedfrom UNC-Chapel Hill and came back to their hometown to set down roots.

They saw their friends leave. They saw jobs leave, too. Yet, they stuck it out. They got good jobs and got involved, and now, they’re part of a volunteer organization of young leaders bent on retooling the Piedmont Triad’s economy.

The name: PTP NEXT.

So, as Martin, Worth, and others from PTP NEXT gather at the 17th hole this week, they’ll remember what they heard from Bobby Long. He’s the Wyndham’s tournament chairman, and more than a year ago over dinner and a conversation, he told them this:

“I challenge you to do something big.’’

With this business competition, they believe theyhave.

“We have thousands of college grads every year, and my impression is recent grads love it here, but they don’t want to stick around and work at a restaurant,’’ says Martin, a Grimsley High grad, Class of ’01, who now directs business development for a local engineering firm.

“You have to challenge them, but we’ve got to find ways to make them want to stay here,’’ he says. “Jobs is how you do it.’’

Greg Bowers knows that. But the Piedmont Triad is not exactly seen as a hotbed for entrepreneurial innovation. Bowers knows that, too.

A few years back, Bowers appeared before a 12-member panel in Raleigh. He needed venture funds to create a business from technology that caught disease-causing organisms in water and food.

The technology came out of UNCG, and the panelists liked the idea. Then came the question Bowers will always remember.

“This is really interesting technology,’’ one panelist told Bowers. “Surely, it wasn’t developed in Greensboro. Where did it really come from?’’

“That caused the hair to rise on the back of my neck,’’ says Bowers, a Greensboro entrepreneur. “It was this feeling that what does little old Greensboro have?’’

A lot, according to Bowers. He, along with two professors at N.C. A&T, Ajit Kelkar and Ron Bolick, have created a company that makes composite materials out of carbon fiber to help improve everything from helicopters to oil-spill collection.

Known as Advaero Technologies, the company spun out of research at A&T.

Today, Advaero is based at Gateway University Research Park, a joint venture between UNCG and A&T that helps businesses like Advaero survive.

So will this competition, Bowers believes.

“First-time entrepreneurs don’t know what to do,’’ Bowers says. “They know what is important tothem, but investors look for different things. Inventions are great, but you have to make a business out of it.’’

That’s where NC IDEA comes in. PTP NEXT has hooked up with the Piedmont Triad Partnership and NC IDEA, a nonprofit in Durham that has awarded $2.1 million since 2005 to help jump-start 57 new companies.

Today, 80 percent of those companies are still in business, and one-third of them have raised more than $45 million in venture funds.

Yet, hardly any of those companies are from our ZIP codes. Two-thirds of those grant winners are rooted in the Triangle. Only three grant winners call the Piedmont Triad their home.

This new competition is an attempt to change that.

Applicants from the Piedmont Triad will have two chances to get a grant — either from NC IDEA’s statewide competition or the PTP NEXT competition. If they win, the winner’s new dance partner will be — NC IDEA.

The nonprofit’s acronym says it all: Innovative Development for Economic Advancement.

“Our state has some of the best research universities in the world, but we rank very low in turning them into companies,’’ says David Rizzo, president and CEO of NC IDEA. “So, we need more entrepreneurs and more venture capital to give those entrepreneurs a long runway to help make that idea work.’’

It’s worked in the Triangle. Yet, travel less than an hour west on Interstate 85. The culture changes. Attitudes shift.Job losses and lingering unemployment plague our region like a cold you can’t shake.

So, David Worth got busy. Just like John Martin.

Worth is a husband, a father and treasurer of his family’s company, Shamrock Corp. More than a half-century ago, his grandfather Alex started a gift-wrapping business in Greensboro.

He’s now the third generation of his family involved with his grandfather’s business. It’s a business where he wants to stay.

“I’ve got two kids now. I’ve had friends peel off to Raleigh and Charlotte, and I want to see growth and dynamic things going on here,’’ says Worth, a Page High grad, Class of ’97. “I want to keep capital and people here. I want to see fun, cool stuff happening in the business world in the Triad.

“That helps us all.’’

Contact Jeri Rowe at 373-7374 or

NELSON KEPLEY/News & Record   Gregory Bowers, president and CEO of homegrown company Advaero Technologies, holds a shaft tunnel cover (top) for a military helicopter that his company designed of composite material. It could be used to replace the old cover (bottom).