When a military drone glides almost silently over a war-torn land halfway across the globe, it takes a little bit of Batesburg-Leesville with it.
A small manufacturer in the Lexington County town fabricates the material that covers the plane’s radar shield – its “radome” – allowing the craft to survey the land below it without being detected. That manufacturer is one of many in South Carolina that won military contracts with the advice and support of SCRA, a 29-year-old nonprofit that matches researchers with those who can turn their knowledge into products quickly and cost effectively. The enterprise ultimately brings high-paying, high-technology jobs to the state, from Batesburg-Leesville to Mullins to Gray Court.
“We help take the theoretical and make it operational,” says Bill Mahoney, CEO of SCRA. Although it works with scientists and researchers, Bill says SCRA does things, not studies, including providing seed money, mentoring and business consulting for fledgling entrepreneurs; allowing companies such as Michelin to perform research and development at SCRA labs, saving them the cost of providing their own facilities; and matching researchers with small companies that can quickly deliver the innovative products clients such as the federal government and military demand. SCRA also helped South Carolina’s EPSCoR program land a $20 million National Science Foundation contract to finance university research in medicine, engineering and computer science.
“We’re nimble and very flexible,” Bill says. “We get things contracted fast, tested fast and produced fast.”
SCRA has more than 200 direct employees but works with a network of subcontractors and others nearly 20 times that number. “We’re small but mighty,” Bill says – and probably better known in Washington than in South Carolina.
During the 2011 budget year, SCRA contributed $1.45 billion to the state’s economy, according to a study by the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business. The total since its founding in 1983 is more than $14 billion, according to multiple economic studies.
“SCRA supports more than 15,000 knowledge economy jobs in the state with an average wage between $55,000 and $75,000,” says Douglas Woodward of the Moore School, who led the study. “These jobs are not only high paying but also highly technical, and they dramatically improve South Carolina’s economy while making our state more competitive.”
With each high-technology job it helps create, Bill says, SCRA also helps create seven to nine lower-paying, lower-skilled service jobs.
SCRA “is an absolute blessing to this state,” says Reed Byrum, chairman of the Byrum Innovation Group in Greenville and a former member of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Committee who has worked in Silicon Valley. Yet it remains one of the best-kept secrets in the state, partly because it spends no public money – and so is not subjected to government oversight – and, Reed says, because SCRA seldom toots its own horn.
“I talk to people out of state all the time, and they’re amazed at what’s happening in South Carolina,” Reed says. Ten years ago, he says, almost no one would have predicted that the Palmetto State would sit at the top of the so-called Knowledge Economy heap. SCRA is now a world-class organization, and its programs have been recognized across the globe.
Could SCRA replicate its successes elsewhere and, perhaps, become better known as a result? Bill says SCRA has turned down such offers. “We owe our loyalty to the state of South Carolina,” he says. “This is a great place to be a scientist or engineer. It’s still a place where one person can make an enormous difference.”
SCRA makes that difference by matching college, industry and government researchers with those who can turn their ideas into something tactile. It guides researchers and entrepreneurs through the sometimes-tortuous process of converting knowledge into a prototype that can be tested and, ultimately, manufactured, packaged and marketed. The products it has helped bring to market include:
• a patented IV fluid used to treat shock victims on the battlefield and in hospitals
• a robot that scales ships, scraping away the rust
• a process that, for the first time, allows for the recycling of carbon-based parts
• fraud-management and network surveillance for law enforcement and communications
• tools and processes used in the early detection of skin cancer
• solar panels to be installed on the roof of Fort Sumter so that, in two years, it can discontinue its use of gas
SCRA’s list of approximately 200 clients and partners includes the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force; Clemson, USC and Francis Marion; and foundries, shipyards and aircraft manufacturers. Among the familiar corporate names are Boeing, Milliken and Northrop Grumman.
Because SCRA’s economic impact to the state has risen exponentially since 1983, Bill predicts a long and profitable future. The $400 million backlog of work contracted but not yet delivered will see to that. Apparently even the most nimble can’t keep up with the steady demand for innovation.
“We’ve really accelerated our business, but the reality is that we still have unfulfilled potential,” Bill says. “Everything that goes on here is very compelling work. We’re going to be around to serve the state for the foreseeable future.”
SCRA At a Glance
What is it? SCRA is a non-stock, tax-exempt company formed in 1983 with a one-time state government grant of $500,000. The company’s corporate office is located in downtown Columbia, and it has a research center in Carolina Research Park off I-77, along with centers located in Clemson and Charleston. The non-profit company receives no state financing.
What does it do? SCRA provides seed funding, advice and networking to bring new technologies to market fast. It matches researchers with those who can turn ideas into products, often cultivating new, highly specialized businesses in the process. That helps grow public and private sector jobs in South Carolina and to boost the state’s economy. New salaries average around $70,000 annually. SCRA’s Applied R&D Business provides collaboration and consortia management to government and other entities on projects such as making Navy ships less expensive and providing more nimble prosthetic limbs for wounded warriors.
How has SCRA directly profited the state? Since its inception, the company has sparked more than $14 billion in economic development statewide. It also has invested more than $31 million of its own proceeds into startup companies, according to CEO Bill Mahoney. The top 51 of those startups have attracted almost $171 million in private investment.
Has it won any accolades? The American Business Awards named SCRA the national nonprofit of the year in 2011. The same year, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce also named SCRA one of the fastest-growing companies in the state and one of the best places to work.
Source: SCRA, www.scra.org