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Innovating, incubating and training workers in the new economy

Landing a big, new employer is typically what equates to economic development within a city or town.

But in other cases, economic development happens in the form of gradual steps toward developing a strong workforce, nurturing startups and helping existing businesses expand.

All over South Carolina, municipalities are working with private businesses, energetic entrepreneurs and bright students to support, train and encourage a new type of economic development engine. These partnerships can take the form of incubators. It is in such settings that new ideas are given time to flourish into businesses, startups gather business advice, and nonprofits connect with cities to grow the next generation of engineers or scientists.

"Entrepreneurs are everywhere. There are smart, motivated entrepreneurs in every community," said David Warner, the director of the Technology Incubator at Knowledge Park in Rock Hill. "You need to find a way to identify them."

In Bluffton, the Don Ryan Center for Innovation has been helping innovative startups and early stage companies since it opened about four years ago as a partnership between the town and Clemson University. The center offers office space, resources and hands-on consulting support. Plus participating firms can connect with business mentors, technology expertise, product development and marketing assistance, intellectual property research and other services.

Most of the 28 companies that have gone through the program are still in business, according to David Nelems, the center’s executive director. The most recent survey of firms that graduated showed 88 people work for the startups, generating a total impact of $5 million in annual payroll and $25 million in revenues. The types of companies grown in the Bluffton incubator span the business spectrum. "We focus on the word ‘innovation,’" he said.

Among the Ryan Center’s success stories is a business started by a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, who began by digitizing brochures for marine sales, and eventually created a custom resource management system that tracks sales and services. "This will be a $20 million to $30 million company in a couple years, all based in Bluffton," Nelems said.

Another startup at the center is building a virtual reality headset for real estate sales. The business is expected to double its sales this year, he added.

"We know the majority of job growth is from small businesses. We have had several large companies recruited to Bluffton over time, but it’s hard to hit a grand slam like that a lot," Nelems said. Instead, he said, it’s important to help people turn their ideas into a profitable business.

That’s what’s also happening in Rock Hill, which operates an incubator program similar to Bluffton’s.

Rock Hill, once home to more than 20 textile mills, suffered like many cities in South Carolina when the mills cut production or closed several decades ago. The area successfully recruited some new industries to business parks, but during the recent recession, Rock Hill and other municipalities began to understand the importance of creating jobs through small and medium-sized businesses and startups.

About four years ago, the City of Rock Hill began developing a community-owned and operated incubator. David Warner, the director, calls it "home-grown economic development." He and a team from Rock Hill took classes from Clemson professors to learn about launching companies and the commercial use of technology. In August 2013, seven companies moved into the new Technology Incubator at Knowledge Park, which is run as a nonprofit.

"It’s been successful beyond anybody’s imagination," Warner said.

The incubator is part of the larger Knowledge Park plan. What has made it successful is its tie to urban redevelopment in Rock Hill that includes the old textile district, downtown and Winthrop University, he said.

"Knowledge Park has no hard boundary. It’s energy. It’s not about buildings. It’s about people working. It’s about job and talent development. It’s more than real estate," said Warner, adding that the city, Winthrop University, York Technical College, local entrepreneurs and others all are working together. "It’s unprecedented cooperation. We are all pulling on the oars in the same way."

For the City of Clemson, the research by faculty, staff and students at Clemson University is driving the startup businesses that are spending time in incubators. Two incubators, called Think Tanks, provide space where startups, entrepreneurs and small businesses can work and collaborate with each other. A third Think Tank will open soon, all located downtown close to the university.

"Our general objective, all woven into our comprehensive plan, is all designed to promote entrepreneurs," said Todd Steadman, planner for the City of Clemson.

City officials accomplish much of that by staying in regular communication with the researchers at the university whose work lends itself to startup business.

"They (researchers) are aware that we are here to help, and we are on their radar. We want to be in the forefront of their minds," Steadman said. "We are aware of what’s available, and we build relationships. It’s important to take time to understand your marketplace."

A joint city-university advisory board works to improve communication between various parts of the university and the city, making sure university researchers and entrepreneurs know what the city can provide for startups. Earlier this summer, an economic development committee was resurrected in Clemson, pulling members of the area colleges and universities together with the chamber of commerce, business community and city officials.

Other municipalities around the state are also involved with nonprofits that are working to grow the next generation of entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers.

One of those nonprofits, DIG, which stands for the Dreams, Imagination and Gift Development Program, was founded by Steven Brown in 2013. A native of Williston who went on to earn an electrical engineering degree at the University of South Carolina, Brown knew the challenges faced by small, rural towns. He also knew the talent pool that was often overlooked in these areas.

Children at the DIG STEM festival in Williston
DIG STEM festival provided hands-on learning to children in Williston.
Photo/Quentin D. Curry, Eyedew Photography

"We believe big dreams can be achieved in small places," Brown said. "But these kids have had zero exposure to many of these types of STEM jobs."

DIG recruits mentors to work with students and organizes monthly field trips to STEM-focused businesses. A STEM summer camp for first through eighth graders drew 98 kids (with a waiting list) this year. In April, DIG teamed with the Town of Williston to hold a festival that drew 2,000 people to the rural Barnwell County town. Students competed in a STEM competition, rode 3-D virtual rides, held reptiles courtesy of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and explored other learning activities.

"There was a large education component, trying to encourage young people to go into STEM careers," Williston Town Administrator Kenny Cook said. "It’s been done in the Upstate and Greenville and the Lowcountry, but this group wanted to have a test area in a rural area, so they chose us."

Brown said rural areas are a good place to look for the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs.

"When you are from a small town, you are naturally innovative," Brown said. "The same things needed in large areas are needed in small areas. Our kids want to come back and start businesses here."