Where would the world be without the great historic inventors who helped bring about the modern age? Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Orville and Wilbur Wright, as well as more recent geniuses like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, have forever changed the trajectory of everyday living and business. But none of these heralds of new ideas arrived at success without struggling in the infancy stages of their journeys. Here in the Midlands, residents are fortunate to have business leaders who place a premium on fostering new ideas to stay on technology’s cutting edge.
In 1998, the dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Engineering decided that the college needed a business incubator to stimulate technology transfer and recruit world-class research faculty. Don Tomlin, a local entrepreneur, agreed to invest $200,000 in order to bring the incubator to life.
Since its inception in November of that year, the U.S.C./Columbia Technology Incubator has graduated 31 companies and created 775 new jobs. The portfolio of company specialties has expanded from engineering technology to include computer science, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, biotechnology, life sciences and web development. In 2008 and 2009, it was nominated for the National Business Incubation Association’s Incubator of the Year Award, and it received a National Award for Excellence from the International Economic Development Council.
Today, the U.S.C./Columbia Technology Incubator is a non-profit corporation sponsored by U.S.C., Midlands Technical College, the City of Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties and materially supported by businesses and private donors. It is currently home to 50 companies, and it provides opportunities for entrepreneurs to commercialize their ideas, produce successful, financially viable and freestanding businesses, and create hundreds of jobs in the community.
The Incubator supports high-tech, high-growth companies that can benefit from all the Incubator partners, which include the University of South Carolina and Midlands Technical College with its manufacturing startup facilities, until the company is ready to “graduate.” The average company spends three years with the Incubator but has the option to spend up to four years total. Determining if a company is ready to graduate is done on an individual basis, if the entrepreneurs have successfully commercialized their idea and if they are financially stable to survive outside of the program.
The Incubator is run by a two-person team, which is overseen by a board of directors. Bill Kirkland, executive director, consults with the Incubator companies, mentoring them on business structure and strategy. Laura Corder, director of operations and communications manager, oversees the facility and administration as well as the communications for the program. She also assists individual companies with marketing and brand development.
The Incubator is open to any qualified company with a promising technology-oriented or uniquely compelling business capable of rapid growth. “Our main goal is to create innovative, financially viable companies that can create economic growth for the Midlands,” Laura says. “Recruitment of companies comes from a variety of sources. Prospective companies become a part of the program by reaching out to us and having some initial meetings where we obtain a clear understanding of their company and their goals. From there we assess whether our program is right for them. If so, they make a presentation to our advisory board, which then gives the final approval. Once approved, they are officially an Incubator company and shortly thereafter set up an office and join our entrepreneurial community.”
Incubator companies have the use of affordable office space, conference rooms and collaboration areas, as well as office necessities such as wireless broadband internet, cloud technology, copy/fax/scan services, telephones, a mail and shipping center and parking.
However, the Incubator is comprised of more than just office space. It offers a wide range of services where companies learn core concepts at workshops and seminars, such as business development, business formation, marketing, legal, human resources, strategic planning, accounting, public relations, financial practices, web design and fundraising. The Incubator also provides coaching, mentoring and referrals to business experts and business plan development.
The Incubator community is comprised of medical doctors, engineers, PhDs, inventors, strategists, researchers, artists, entrepreneurs, web designers, social media experts, digital video producers, musicians and renewable energy advocates, all of whom share their knowledge and expertise to the benefit of all.
Incubator companies not only receive support in overcoming daily challenges, but they also have the opportunity to pitch for an exclusive Seed Fund to launch their “big ideas.” Laura and Bill consult with an average of five to 10 companies each day.
“We have an open door policy with our companies where they are able to drop by any time and ask us any questions they may have,” says Laura. “Our on-demand consulting model is in place to work through whatever challenges they are currently facing. If we do not have an answer, we know someone who does, and we make those invaluable phone calls to connect them with the right people.”
Advanced Automation Consulting, Inc. is an example of the success a business can achieve with the Incubator. AAC now helps businesses improve their performance through the innovative application of technology, project management, business process reengineering and more. AAC currently employs more than 40 people in Lexington County at an average annual salary in excess of $75,000.
John Denise, CEO of AAC, says, “I believe the U.S.C./Columbia Technology Incubator is one of the most powerful and cost effective economic development tools in South Carolina. It provided AAC with the infrastructure and support we needed as a young company, allowing us to focus on taking care of our customers and building an outstanding team.”
“Each company has a unique set of needs, and determining how to advise while managing the entire program presents quite a challenge. But it is nothing we don’t continue to overcome with positive results every day,” Laura says. “Knowing that we truly make a difference in someone’s dream is priceless.”
The U.S.C./Columbia Technology Incubator has been so successful that in the past 15 months, it has added 27 quality companies to the roster of 50 active companies. Forty-five are housed directly within the Incubator and provide 150 full and part-time jobs; 44 percent are minority-owned. Sales volume in 2012 was more than $17 million, and seven companies export their products internationally. The Incubator also has recruited five startups into its new Affiliate Program; hosted an open house with more than 150 attendees; and published a monthly newsletter to more than 1,400 subscribers. It was even featured in the June issue of Inc. Magazine as one of three college-town incubators to watch.
“The Incubator fills a hole in the Midlands community that no other program can address,” says Laura. “It allows researchers, engineers and innovators across all fields the opportunity to explore the world of entrepreneurship while connecting them to the resources necessary for a successful startup.”