Editor’s note: John Warner, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, writes the Swamp Fox blog about issues affecting the technology industry in the Carolinas and elsewhere.
Greeenville, S.C. – Recently I had the opportunity, with several community leaders from Greenville, to tour three knowledge initiatives in Columbia. I left very impressed with my visit and realized there is a major success story emerging under the radar in the midlands.
We met with the leaders of three Columbia initiatives: the USC Innovista Research Campus, the USC Columbia Technology Incubator, and the Enterprise Campus at Midlands Technical College. Individually the word has gotten out about each of these initiatives. Collectively these three assets form a continuum of innovation unlike anything else in the Southeaster Innovation Corridor that includes the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.
Innovista is an ambitious, $250-million research campus being built on the banks of the Congaree River in Columbia. Harris Pastides, USC’s Vice President for Research & Health Sciences, has been Innovista’s champion to date. We met with Innovista’s new Executive Director, John Parks. Major areas of research focus include Future Fuels, Health Sciences, and Nanotechnology. These focus areas are anchored by preeminent scholars who hold several endowed research chairs and who will attract strong junior faculty and top flight students.
Top talent is the essential fuel that drives an innovation economy. Folks from Greenville can’t tour Innovista without comparing it to Clemson University’s Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR). One major advantage that Innovista has over CU-ICAR is the campus is contiguous to the main USC campus and to downtown Columbia, which will allow the three to develop in a unified, synergistic way along the river. The website has a very cool, interactive map of the emerging Innovista campus.
Joel Stevenson, director of the USC Columbia Technology Incubator showed us around his facility, also located in downtown Columbia a few blocks from Innovista. The incubator is a collaboration among the university, the City of Columbia, and Midlands Technical College. To locate in the incubator, the company needs to have been started by faculty or students at USC or Midlands Tech, or the company needs to desire to grow a significant relationship with one of these two institutions. The incubator is developing a strong track record of success. Since 1998 the incubator has nurtured 67 companies and assisted these companies in raising a total of $29,000,000 in investment capital. And the best is still ahead. The top talent recruited by Innovista will begin companies that will feed the incubator in the future.
Tom Ledbetter, executive director the 150 acre Enterprise Campus at Midlands Technical College, filled us in on his progress. The initial phase of the MTC Enterprise Campus is a business accelerator facility, which has spaces of approximately 4,000 square feet designed for a company already past the initial incubation phase and now ready to begin to scale up and hire employees. While most of the initial employees of a technology start-up might be students or faculty of USC, once the company begins to grow increasingly it will attract a ready workforce of Midlands Tech students. Once a company outgrows the business accelerator, larger build to suit buildings will be available in subsequent phases of the Enterprise Campus. All companies on the Enterprise Campus can benefit from MTC Center of Excellence for Technology, which can train the workforce the companies need to grow. They also have access as needed to the resources of the University of South Carolina.
Each of these initiatives is impressive in its own right. Together they form a continuous infrastructure for attracting talent, incubating companies, and then growing them rapidly, that is unique in the southeast.
On the trip back home to Greenville, we were impressed and inspired.