A Statewide Look at South Carolina's Thriving Tech Incubators
By Dustin Waters
With almost 7,000 tech businesses operating across South Carolina, it can be difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs to find their footing. Fortunately, the state is home to a diverse array of small business incubators dedicated to growing your company, and with it, the local tech economy.
In Charleston, where plans for a new six-story technology center guided by the Charleston Digital Corridor recently gained approval, The Harbor Entrepreneur Center serves as a go-to source for accelerating small companies in various stages of development. Currently, 55 entrepreneurs utilize The Harbor’s float space, which offers a coffee shop-style setting where they can set up for the day and pack things up at the close of business. Inside The Harbor’s workspace at Charleston’s Pacific Box and Crate facility, growing companies can rent private offices until they are ready to set out on their own.
In the six years that The Harbor Entrepreneur Center has operated, a total of 10 cohorts have graduated from the center’s 14-week accelerator program. Among those groups, Dynepic and Bidr stand out as The Harbor’s main breakout companies. Silent-auction platform Bidr gained widespread attention in 2015 after earning a $100,000 investment as a part of AOL cofounder Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest tour. Just last June, Dynepic announced that the startup had pulled in $675,000 in new investments to develop a parental control platform for children’s internet-connected devices. Dynepic founder Krissa Watry now mentors aspiring startups working their way through The Harbor’s Accelerator program.
“I think community is truly the thing to hold onto and focus on. Harbor couldn’t exist, or there’d be no real reason for it to exist, were there not a community to fuel it,” says The Harbor’s Alex Cottingham, who credits cooperation among Charleston’s busy entrepreneurial community as part of what makes the incubator stand out. “We started for a very specific reason, as any real organization does. We started to fill gaps that our founders saw in the market, which is why the accelerator launched in 2014. Over time, we’ve seen the community really pitch in to fill some of those gaps as well.”
Offering a variety of spaces centered in downtown Greenville, NEXT is looking to grow the number of global headquarters in the Upstate. With three facilities—the NEXT Innovation Center, NEXT on Main, and NEXT Manufacturing—this incubator offers everything from individual desk space all the way up to 10,000-square-foot workspaces.
NEXT’s manufacturing center is the most specialized among their workspaces, focusing on “tangible product companies” who need production space and storage. NEXT on Main and its traditional office layout tends to cater almost exclusively to software companies, while the 60,000-square-foot Innovation Center offers more flexibility.
“We’re not bringing a solution to the market and hoping it works. We’re meeting the demands of the marketplace by creating the products that they’re asking for. By products in this case, we’re talking about buildings,” says NEXT CEO John Moore. “We have everything from individual desks, offices that are 30-day rentals, up to upstairs [in the Innovation Center] where we have our more mature companies. The largest office is probably 10,000 square feet. That space has been occupied three different times by three different companies that were growing and ended up moving out.”
Notable breakouts at NEXT are medical technology company ChartSpan, which grew from two people in the NEXT Innovation Center to around 200 in the company’s 100,000-square-foot Greenville headquarters. Another success is the rapidly growing cloud-based storage developer Green Cloud. In 2017 alone, NEXT reported almost $23 million raised in new capital, as well as 261 new jobs created across 102 companies supported both in and outside of the incubator’s facilities.
“We’re pretty much an open-source kind of effort. You can plug into the entire ecosystem. There are really no silos here,” Moore says of NEXT’s approach to the Greenville entrepreneurial community. “There are areas of specialization, whether it’s capital, facilities, mentoring, whatever the needs are for these companies, but here you can plug in. It’s part of the DNA of the region and the community, but it’s also the way we built NEXT for the entrepreneurs.”
At the center of the state, you can find technology industry mainstay the University of South Carolina/Columbia Technology Incubator. The incubator’s CoLAB space offers up a more traditional workspace available for rent, while the center’s LaunchPad program serves as an eight-week bootcamp for young companies to establish and validate their business models. Successful startups that began at the tech incubator include IDV, Interactive Digital Visualization, which created all the digital trees featured in the movie Avatar.
The 40,000-square-foot USC/Columbia Tech Incubator facility also features the separate IdeaLabs, a 20,000-square-foot space on the USC campus offering office and wet-lab space for companies needing to conduct experiments and safely work with chemicals. Breakout startups at IdeaLabs include biotech companies IMCS and DPX Technologies. Current companies utilizing incubator lab space are nanotech developers Neo-Nanomedics and The Harbor graduate Engineered Marine Coatings Quantum Paint.
According to USC/Columbia Technology Incubator Executive Director Chad Hardaway, the incubator shares resources from USC, offering companies such services as intellectual property legal support, sales training, and help locating funding sources. In the last five years, Hardaway estimates that the incubator has brought in around $20 million in federal support for startups, explaining that his group is more focused on the business side of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“The entrepreneurial community, I think, gets mislabeled because they’re not necessarily business people and they may not even be entrepreneurs. They’re more like creatives and idea people,” says Hardaway. “I think we take a lot of heat from that community for not being at all the events and all the things like that, but one of the reasons that we don’t do that is because we’re busy helping people that don’t need to go to the events anymore.”
He adds, “I’m not bashing that, but there is a big difference between an entrepreneurial community and people who are actually trying to do the work. The entrepreneurial community, we absolutely need it to help encourage people to get ideas and find resources. I tend to say that we want to be the destination for when the entrepreneurial community comes up with something that they want to chase.”