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Big business should help grow Wilmington’s startup scene: John Kirk

Early-stage tech startups may now be a small part of Delaware's business-friendly landscape, but not for long, says MUNI-Tech cofounder and Wilmington native John Kirk. To get there, though, established giants and scalable tech firms need to be on the same team.

Wilmington's skyline is full of big names. (Photo by Flickr user Ryan Keene, used under a Creative Commons license)
Like the majority of startups in the United States today, MUNI-Tech was formed as a Delaware company. Unlike the vast majority of these companies however, MUNI actually maintains a physical presence in Wilmington rather than simply being domiciled in a file cabinet on Orange Street.

As a lifelong Delawarean, I always wanted to build a company in my hometown. I was presented with an opportunity to do so when my friend and cofounder Richard Prieto first discussed starting a business together. We’re building multi-touch, multi-location screen solutions so people can better collaborate around the world.
At a recent Wilmington Business Leaders Network event, I was part of a conversation about how other startups like ours can help bring 5,000 new residents to the city.

The Wilmington innovation corridor is a real goal.
There aren’t many garages in downtown Wilmington’s Midtown Brandywine neighborhood, so we started building touchscreens in my basement. We weren’t the first Wilmington tech company to start there either. Mobius New Media spent its early years there, as evidenced by the tangle of ethernet cables we encountered in the first days of MUNI.

With few exceptions, established businesses hardly acknowledge Wilmington's startup community.

When we started building that first huge touchscreen in 2009, we didn’t even have a business model yet. The iPad was months away from being released and most of the people we talked to thought we were crazy. Many still do, and yet we’re still doing it.
A non-descript building in our neighborhood is home to thousands of businesses which exist solely in file cabinets. Walk across the street to the Hercules Building, however, and you will find one of our installations: an interactive directory running on a giant touchscreen, built less than a block away. Venture into the 1313 Innovation Center and you’ll find our small office.
Head down Market Street to the headquarters of Start It Up Delaware on any given Thursday and you’ll find us interacting with our fellow entrepreneurs who call the Loft home.
Being accepted into DreamIt Philly, I am constantly asked if we are abandoning Wilmington.

Despite our roots in Wilmington growing a technology startup over the past several years, I am writing this article from the Philadelphia offices of DreamIt Ventures, one of three Delaware companies that have joined the University City-based accelerator program. Being accepted into DreamIt, one of the nation’s top startup programs of its kind has significantly impacted our visibility and growth, and opened up entire networks previously inaccessible to us. I am constantly asked if we are abandoning Wilmington and why we would choose to join an accelerator in Philadelphia even though there are no viable alternatives in Wilmington.
There is a nascent ecosystem of technology entrepreneurs in Wilmington and the state and a thriving business community. The problem for early stage startups — with their potential for rapid growth, high-paying jobs and ability to attract talent into the city’s central business district — is that, with few exceptions, the established businesses hardly acknowledge the startup community.
We’re a small part today, but when you look nationally, we’re a far bigger part of tomorrow.
All businesses need capital to survive. In a state like Delaware, where there is plenty of capital available for later-stage businesses but few seed-stage technology angel investors (excluding the newly launched Leading Edge Ventures), the only way for a startup to survive is through immediate revenues or relocation. That can help bootstrapped startups and client-based services businesses grow but limits the diversity of early-stage companies here.
I am amazed at how accessible business leaders and decision makers in Philadelphia are, both to DreamIt companies as well as the Philadelphia technology scene in general. Wilmington has the opportunity to have a thriving technology startup scene but, without the support of the broader business community, a city that is already wrought with many problems will continue to hemorrhage businesses and talent.

Companies: 1313 Innovation / Cnverg (formerly MUNI-Tech)

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